Expert’s perspective On June 16, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for less than four hours in Geneva. This was the first meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin during his presidency, and Biden is the fifth US president with whom Putin has held a summit.
Expectations for the summit were described by both sides as low in advance and assessed more favorably after the meeting ended. The meeting provided an opportunity for both leaders to present grievances and warnings to the other (and to show toughness toward their domestic audience). Other than allowing for a breath of momentum, the outcome of the meeting appears modest: agreement to restore ambassadors to their posts, resume bilateral arms control discussions, hold discussions on “strategic stability” and hold unspecified online consultations. Typically, Mr. Putin has dismissed all of Mr. Biden’s assertions about Russian actions and leveled counter-accusations pointing to US hostilities.
Among the outputs reached from the summit, there is no doubt that the Internet will be the most problematic area to pursue. Mr. Biden appears to have handed Mr. Putin a list of 16 critical sectors of US infrastructure that should be considered “off-limits” for cyberattacks, for example, “red lines” that must not be crossed without significant risk of retaliation. For his part, Mr. Putin emphasized that Russia is the victim of cyber-attacks emanating from the territory of the United States and its NATO partners, as well as of attempts to interfere in the Russian elections. The challenge in future cyber debates will center around three areas: different interpretations of the relevance of deterrence theory in today’s cyber environment, attribution, and control.
Mr. Biden’s assertive comments to Mr. Putin about recent cyberattacks against the United States such as the ransomware attack on Colonial pipelines (Mr. Biden is said to have asked Mr. Putin how would he react if Russian pipelines were hit?) The list of “banned” US infrastructure entities indicates A deep belief in this administration that Russia can be deterred from engaging in future conduct of cyber operations against US targets or “punish” attacks originating from the territory of the Russian Federation by criminal groups.
Unfortunately, it is very likely that Mr. Putin or those who control Russia’s electronic operations tools will agree that the deterrence theory applies. Deterrence works only when both parties know that the other is capable – and willing – to cause significant harm to the other.
The Russian side likely believes (and may have clearly shown) that the United States is disproportionately vulnerable to cyber risks at all levels of the economic, social and political infrastructure when Russia is not. There is a reason why the use of cyber tools is a central feature of Russian strategic doctrine. It works and looks like a legitimate tool that falls short of conventional warfare. The Russian side may argue that hybrid warfare using electronic tools is no different from the economic war that Russia is experiencing due to the sanctions imposed by the United States on its allies.
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