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Digital Détente

The case for cyber peace with Russia

Illustration by Curt Merlo

In September 2016, I applied for a Council on Foreign Relations fellowship that would have allowed me to work for the U.S. government during my sabbatical year at Barnard College. I’m a professor of political science there, and I direct the Program on U.S.-Russia Relations at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. I’ve been a close observer of Russian affairs for over 30 years, and I was eager to contribute my expertise to one of America’s most pressing foreign policy challenges. I had expected (and hoped) that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election, but after receiving the fellowship, I decided to stay the course and serve my country under Donald Trump. In March, I received an offer from the U.S. Mission to the United Nations to help advise on negotiations with Russia in the U.N. Security Council. I received my security clearance in May and then waited all summer as a string of supposed start dates came and went. Finally, in mid-August the offer was withdrawn, because the “front office” at the State Department wouldn’t sign off on it.

I don’t think it was personal. And I’m hardly alone. The State Department under Rex Tillerson is in chaos, and he’s eliminated several other fellowship programs pending “restructuring” of the department. Career foreign service officers have been shut out of the decision-making process, and key duties have been ignored.

But while Trump and Tillerson are busy “deconstructing” the administrative state, U.S. foreign policy toward Russia has stalled. The economic sanctions Congress approved this summer send a signal to Russia that the United States is angry about the Kremlin’s digital meddling in our presidential election. But sanctions have done little to change Russia’s actions or to make America more secure. Rather than further escalating the conflict with Russia, the United States should be looking for ways to limit the confrontation. This was a hallmark of bilateral policy during the Cold War, and it should be resurrected today.

The United States, together with its allies, initiated sanctions on Moscow after Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and increased them as Russia fomented war in eastern Ukraine. Three years later, however, there is no hard evidence that sanctions have changed Russia’s behavior. The low-level military conflict in Ukraine grinds on, with Russia maintaining its support for the rebels. And U.S. officials believe that Russia will continue to interfere in future U.S. elections.

I’m not suggesting doing away with sanctions altogether—Russia has done nothing to deserve that. And if Vladimir Putin ever attacked the United States or its allies, much harsher sanctions that denied Russian banks access to global financial markets could send the Russian economy into free-fall. But the existing sanctions are tempered by the relatively weak economic connections between our two countries. Trade with the United States represents a small fraction of Russia’s total international commerce. Sanctions restricting international loans to Moscow caused overall levels of foreign investment in Russia to plummet in 2014. But Russia’s economic ties with European and Asian countries remain strong, and by 2016, foreign investment in Moscow rebounded, up $26 billion compared to the year before.

Moreover, the 2014 collapse of global oil prices may actually have reduced the impact of the sanctions regime. Many of the sanctions were directed at Russia’s oil and natural gas sectors. But as oil prices dropped, Russian companies shifted their focus away from Arctic oil exploration and toward more rational investments.

Sanctions can only do so much. They barely touch the wealth amassed by Russia’s officials and pro-regime oligarchs. As investigations such as the Panama Papers proved, much of Russia’s wealth is stored offshore, in secret accounts with opaque ownership chains. This wealth can’t be easily targeted, so for the people closest to Putin, sanctions are an inconvenience—but not much more than that.

Sanctions may also have had the unintended consequence of stoking Russian nationalism, especially since state television (where most Russians get their news) continues to lambast the United States. Most Russians approve of Putin’s bellicose foreign policy, and Putin can escape responsibility for his own domestic policy failures by blaming Russia’s economic woes on the West.

If sanctions are ineffective, it might seem logical to respond to Moscow’s digital interference in the U.S. election with a cyber counterstrike. After all, the United States has some of the most advanced cyberwarfare capabilities in the world. But America’s internet-linked economy and growing “internet of things”—with everything from home security systems and self-driving cars to pacemakers connected to the web—also make it the most vulnerable country in the world to cyberattack. And as Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus pointed out in their recent New Republic article on Russia’s cyber threats, our commitment to free speech and the free flow of information leaves us particularly exposed to malevolent actors. A cyberwar with Russia would be catastrophic for the United States. Instead, we should concentrate on boosting our cyber defenses.

Ironically, now would be a good time to propose a limited cyber accord with Russia. Not the crazy “impenetrable cybersecurity unit” that Trump floated in July, but an agreement to forgo state-supported “doxing,” or the public release of private emails and other electronic data—what the Russian military intelligence agency did to the Democratic National Committee.

Barack Obama set a precedent for bilateral cyber agreements when he reached an accord with Beijing in 2015 to curtail commercial cyberespionage. And while Obama was criticized at the time for what looked to some like capitulation, experts now agree that the deal had at least some positive benefit, as Chinese hackers, according to a report by the network-security firm FireEye, decreased their attacks on U.S. targets.

Why now for a Russia accord? Because Putin fears, at a level approaching paranoia, U.S. efforts at “regime change,” and Russia has its own presidential election coming up in March. Putin, or his chosen successor if he decides not to run, will almost certainly win another six-year term—unless the United States disrupts things by, say, releasing a cache of compromising material that turns the Russian population against him. To avoid that possibility, Putin might just find an anti-doxing agreement to be useful. And if Putin either didn’t agree to, or didn’t comply with, a limited cyber accord, it would undercut Russia’s already controversial efforts in the U.N. to be seen as a world leader on cyber policy.

Would such an agreement be enforceable? While it might be impossible to prove who ordered a doxing attack, absolute proof isn’t necessary. If attacks against the United States were linked to Russian citizens or Russian territory, and Russia did nothing to stop them, that would be evidence enough of Moscow’s culpability in breaking the agreement.

Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States recognized that working together with Moscow served U.S. interests. In fact, following the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and during the years of the Vietnam War (when Moscow helped fund and arm Washington’s North Vietnamese enemies), the United States and the Soviet Union succeeded in limiting their competition through arms control agreements and other forms of cooperation.

We should take a cue from the Cold War in our dealings with Russia today. For example, many senior U.S. military officers favor restoring regular interactions with their Russian counterparts on security issues. Congress banned most “military to military” activities—such as seminars and joint training exercises—in 2015. But curtailing these interactions does not harm Russia. Instead, it makes potential confrontations more dangerous, by depriving military leaders of insight into their adversaries’ strategic thinking. The resumption of communication might even lead to new agreements: Compacts reached by military officers in 1972 and 1989 helped prevent escalation when U.S. and Soviet military ships and aircraft encountered each other in international waters and airspace.

Russia has strong incentives to cooperate on nuclear issues, too. It doesn’t want the strategic instability that comes from having rising nuclear powers near its borders. In 1968, Moscow signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and in 1995 it joined the Missile Technology Control Regime agreement, which prohibits the export of missile technology that could be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction. Russia was also a key partner in the 2015 agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear development. And despite Putin’s less-than-perfect record on enforcement, Russia has been a necessary participant in expanding U.N. sanctions against North Korea. Instead of making unilateral threats against Tehran and Pyongyang, the United States should try to enlist Russia’s help in pressuring Iran and North Korea to abstain from advanced missile development and return to the negotiating table.

Even in an era of distrust and suspicion, limited cooperation with Russia may be possible. Rather than undermining the State Department, the Trump administration should encourage its greatest foreign policy minds to pursue coherent and effective strategies toward our rivals. Mutually advantageous cooperation—not sanctions—may be Washington’s only hope of keeping Putin in check.