Russia Wants Cyber Treaty 'Before It's Too Late,' US Hopes World Rejects It

A senior State Department official has told Newsweek that the United States is calling on the world to reject an appeal by Russia's top cyber diplomat to engage in efforts to establish a global treaty to avoid an all-out war in the digital realm.

The appeal was delivered a day earlier to Newsweek via the Kremlin's special representative for cooperation in the field of information security, Andrey Krutskikh, ahead of a key meeting to be held Monday at the United Nations Headquarters in New York by the United Nation's Open-ended Working Group dedicated to cybersecurity efforts.

"Modern life is impossible without information and communications technologies (ICTs)," Krutskikh told Newsweek at the time. "They determine our well-being, security and survival. Relying on them, we can become richer or lose all our savings. They are transboundary and almost all-mighty."

"Amidst this reality," he added, "the main task is not to frighten each other with digital means, but to try to reach agreements before it is too late."

The senior Russian diplomat, who also serves as director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Department of International Information Security, warned that "a cyberattack, be it accidental or intended, including [one] perpetrated under false flag, can easily trigger escalation between states, leading to a full-scale confrontation."

Such an escalation, Krutskikh argued, could result in "global ecological, anthropogenic or socio-economic disaster" not dissimilar from the warnings posed by nuclear weapons. And despite mounting tensions between Moscow and Washington, he said Russia was prepared to negotiate on multilateral agreements governing cyber warfare much like the international community did with Cold War-era weapons of mass destruction.

"Regardless of geopolitics, Russia remains open for dialogue and cooperation on information security with all states, and the United States is not an exception," Krutskikh said. "As long as our countries bear special responsibility for ensuring global peace and security, Russia invited its partners from the U.S. to establish foundations for bilateral interaction in cyber domain."

But the senior State Department official dismissed the effort, pointing to Russia's war launched nearly a month ago in neighboring Ukraine, a conflict in which Moscow has been accused of conducting cyberattacks in addition to its land, air and sea hostilities.

"The Russian government's behavior calls into question its true motivations for seeking to 'lead' on cyber negotiations at the UN," the senior State Department official said. "Based on its unprovoked and unjustified attack on Ukraine, and its use of cyber tools in the context of that conflict, we can only assume that the Russian government's true goal is to design a framework all other states abide by but which it will ignore."

US, Cyber, Command, Fort, George, Meade, Maryland
U.S. Cyber Command members work in the Integrated Cyber Center, Joint Operations Center at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland on April 2, 2021. "USCYBERCOM is the military’s frontline force engaged in mitigating Russian as well as other adversarial cyberattacks against the United States," the U.S. Army said. Josef Cole/U.S. Cyber Command

Russia played an instrumental role in bringing cybersecurity to the U.N. agenda, having sponsored the first-ever draft resolution on the issue back in 1998, two decades before Moscow led the formation of the Open-ended Working Group.

But as relations between the U.S. and Russia frayed throughout the 21st century, the entire length of Russian President Vladimir Putin's rule, four successive administrations have grappled with a Kremlin that sought to reassert itself on the world stage. And now more than ever, with relations at an all-time low, Washington has expressed skepticism toward Moscow's endeavors.

"We need to look at the things that the Russian government has been doing in international multilateral bodies for years," the senior State Department official said, "whose purpose is the same as what they're doing in Ukraine — to destroy the international rules-based order that the international community has built up over the course of decades."

The senior State Department official said that despite the absence of a legally binding treaty governing cybersecurity, the U.N. has already made strides in addressing the topic.

"UN member states have worked for more than two decades on conflict prevention in cyberspace," the senior State Department official said. "In the last decade, we achieved hard-won consensus affirmation of the applicability of international law, including the UN Charter, to state behavior in cyberspace."

Washington has preferred to work on multilateral cyber issues through the U.N.'s closed-door Group of Governmental Experts, which includes representatives of 25 countries, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Moscow has sought to pioneer a more inclusive approach through the Open-ended Working Group, to which dozens of nations, including the U.S., and at least four regional and international organizations contributed during the latest session last March.

But Washington remained skeptical of Moscow's designs given the simmering feud between the two powers.

"With its further invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government is violating the UN Charter," the official said. "We can only imagine how trivially Russia treats the framework of responsible state behavior in cyberspace."

As such, rather than pursue areas of cooperation in this field, or others, the senior State Department official said countries should actively avoid empowering Moscow's diplomatic efforts.

"Already we've seen movements to take the Russian Federation out of leadership posts in certain multilateral organizations," the official said. "But it's even more important than ever that the international community stands together to deny the Russian government the ability to achieve its agenda through multilateral diplomacy."

"What gives me hope is that Putin's efforts to drive us apart have backfired," the official added. "I have been heartened by the renewed commitment to our alliances and partnerships and a strong willingness to stand together in defense of the international rules-based order."

The latest dispute between the two top nuclear weapons powers with some of the world's most sophisticated cyberwarfare capabilities came just as President Joe Biden issued a warning Monday that Moscow may be planning to conduct cyberattacks on U.S. soil, a potential retaliation for his administration's efforts to rally an international coalition of sanctions and restrictions against Russia over its war in Ukraine.

And while the White House deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies Anne Neuberger said the indications were limited to "some preparatory activity that we're seeing," the president told a roundtable of CEOs later that same day that "the magnitude of Russia's cyber capacity is fairly consequential, and it's coming."

The U.S. and Russia have long accused one another of malign cyber activities, and Moscow roundly rejected the latest allegations emerging from the Biden administration.

"Washington has fanned hysteria over Moscow's alleged plots for some malicious actions against the U.S. for many years," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov told the state-run Tass Russian News Agency on Wednesday. "Against the backdrop of the situation in Ukraine we see another upsurge of Russophobia."

Syromolotov, like Krutskikh, called on the U.S. to instead engage with a four-point proposal first put forth by Putin in September 2020 to address issues of "international information security," and said the White House should "stop spreading harmful allegations in their attempts to excuse their own miscalculations in home and foreign policies."

Putin's plan would involve the restoration of a "regular full-scale bilateral interagency high-level dialogue" on cybersecurity issues, the "continuous and effective functioning of the communication channels" already in place on nuclear risk reduction and computer readiness, the joint development of "a bilateral intergovernmental agreement on preventing incidents in the information space" similar to past U.S.-Soviet maritime agreements, and "guarantees of non-intervention into internal affairs of each other."

The issue was front and center when Biden and Putin held their first in-person summit in Geneva in June of last year and, while working-level talks followed, no substantive deal emerged as relations further deteriorated as crisis brewed over Ukraine.

Diplomacy has continued to suffer in the midst of the war. The U.S. expelled a dozen Russian diplomats from the country's permanent mission to the U.N. late last month, and Moscow retaliated Wednesday by declaring an unspecified number of U.S. diplomats "persona non grata."

And as the Biden administration continues to warn of potential Russian cyberattacks against the homeland, the president himself set out abroad Wednesday to address European allies during a visit to NATO headquarters in Belgium and then Poland, a NATO member that shares a border with Ukraine, one that tens of thousands of Ukrainians are crossing to flee the carnage.

Biden has vowed to "defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power," and the alliance's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has outlined that even a cyberattack, not just a physical one, could trigger the bloc's Article 5 collective defense clause.

Stoltenberg said Wednesday that NATO allies were seeking to provide additional "cybersecurity assistance" to Ukraine as the war continues, and also announced a doubling of the alliance's battlegroups already present in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to include Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

He emphasized, however, that "NATO will not send troops into Ukraine."

But amid reports that Poland was considering sending peacekeeping forces to the neighboring country, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that "I hope they understand what they are talking about."

"This will be the very direct clash between the Russian and NATO armed forces," Lavrov said, "which everyone not only wanted to avoid, but said that it should never take place in principle."

This article has been updated to reflect that the U.S. was among the contributing nations to the Open-ended Working Group.

Joe, Biden, Air, Force, One, Brussels, Belgium
U.S. President Joe Biden disembarks Air Force One as he arrives at Brussels Airport on March 23, on the eve of a NATO summit about Russia's war in Ukraine. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/Getty Images

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