US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged from their first one-on-one sit-down since Trump took office, both claiming victory.
The two superpower leaders discussed a slew of topics, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters after talks ended, but analysts across the spectrum agree that Putin emerged the winner of the meeting.
One outcome has drawn particularly sharp criticism from observers: the development of a joint US-Russia coalition tasked with combatting cyber threats and boosting cybersecurity.
“Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe,” Trump tweeted on Sunday.
When describing the meeting to reporters on Friday, Tillerson said Trump and Putin had “acknowledged the challenges of cyber threats” and “agreed to explore creating a framework” so the two countries can cooperate to “better understand how to deal with these threats.”
He also said that the US-Russia relationship was “too important to not find a way to move forward” from Russia’s attack on the US electoral process. Tillerson added that the US would work to secure Russia’s commitment that it wouldn’t interfere in US affairs in the future, and that the two countries would “create a framework in which we have some capability to judge what is happening in the cyber world and who to hold accountable.”
Experts and lawmakers have expressed alarm at the prospect of the US and Russia working together on cybersecurity, given Russia’s hacking of the 2016 presidential election, as well as its suspected cyberattacks in Ukraine and across the globe in recent years.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the vice chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement Friday that a US-Russia working group to address cyber threats “would be akin to inviting the North Koreans to participate in a commission on non-proliferation — it tacitly adopts the fiction that the Russians are a constructive partner on the subject instead of the worst actor on the world stage.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted Sunday that “partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with Assad on a ‘Chemical Weapons Unit’.”
“This is like giving the alarm code to the guys who just burglarized your home,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat from California, tweeted on Friday. “Just makes it easier for them next time.”
‘This implicates us in their propaganda’
A joint working group on cybersecurity “masks Russia’s historic and consequential interference in American democracy,” said Glenn Carle, a CIA veteran and former spy. “It lets them off the hook. Trump can now point to the commission and say, ‘Look, we’re working on mutual problems’ and forget that Russia messed with our institutions and democracy.”
Russia’s actions are “masked in the guise of a commission on joint cybersecurity issues — which there are not,” he added. Russian intelligence carries out the cyberattacks against the US and other countries, and it’s “misleading” to create a working group to address a problem they created, Carle said.
Claire Finkelstein, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and an expert on national security, echoed that assessment. The US’ apparent reluctance to strongly push back against Russia’s election interference, and moreover, to agree work with them on addressing cyber threats is “bizarre,” she said.
“This implicates us in their propaganda, because if Putin is refusing to admit there is any Russian cyber campaign going on, then being involved in a supposed collaboration to prevent cyberattacks is part and parcel of his disinformation campaign,” Finkelstein said. “The US is furthering that campaign by entering into this agreement and by not calling Russia out.”
Putin’s false narrative on Russian hacking is derived from a brand of information warfare, known as “dezinformatsiya,” that has been used by the Russians since at least the Cold War. Disinformation campaigns are just one tool Russian intelligence uses to drive a wedge between nations that the Kremlin considers hostile.
Putin’s efforts to work with Trump to address cyber threats that Russia itself poses is not the first time he has used disinformation to undermine the US. In January, the intelligence community found that Putin had ordered an elaborate effort to propel Trump to the presidency, which was partly accomplished by disseminating “fake news” aimed at undermining then-candidate Hillary Clinton and boosting Trump.
State-sponsored Russian news agencies, like RT and Sputnik, openly backed Trump during the election. And automated Twitter accounts — many of them linked to Russia and aided by professional trolls paid by the Kremlin — flooded the social-media platform with pro-Trump rhetoric and made-up news throughout the campaign, ramping up in the days before the election.
Yet despite the intelligence community’s consensus on Russia’s role in the election, Trump has seemed “uninterested” in adequately punishing Russia and protecting American interests, Finkelstein said. “This cyber effort around preventing interference therefore looks like another piece of Russian propaganda that we’ve just lent our support to.”
Russia would benefit disproportionately
A US-Russia coalition on cybersecurity also carries other risks. Russia’s perspective on cyberwarfare differs from the US’s in two key ways, both of which point to a joint effort playing out in Russia’s favor.
First, “the Russians generally look at cyberwarfare as a way to support informational goals, like shaping an election,” said Paulo Shakarian, the CEO of CYR3CON, a firm that specializes in cybersecurity threat intelligence.
Second, Shakarian said, the Russian government is more willing to use “cyber proxies” like hackers and criminal groups that operate outside of the government.
The first difference is rooted in Putin’s long-held view that cyberwar is a way to influence the informational battlefield. The second allows him to tap into the capabilities of the underground Russian hacking community while being able to maintain plausible deniability.
So it would serve Russian interests to push for a bilateral reduction in cyber capabilities in a way that doesn’t factor in information warfare or criminal hacking, Shakarian said.
“For instance, asking the US to reduce the capabilities of organizations such as US Cyber Command and the NSA without addressing non-governmental Russian hacking or information ops would disproportionately benefit the Russians,” he said.
Russia has also historically penalized only underground hackers who target Russian state-owned businesses or corporations that are friendly with the government. Indeed, “one of the standing gentleman’s agreements the FSB,” the Russian intelligence agency, “has with the Russian hacking community is, ‘Do whatever you want, so long as it doesn’t hurt Russia,'” said Alex McGeorge, the head of threat intelligence at Immunity Inc., a firm specializing in nation-state cyber threats.
If Russia and the US move forward with a joint task force targeting cyber threats, Shakarian said, the Kremlin could potentially crack down on malicious hackers who hurt the Russian government and point to it as evidence that they support the agreement, even if it bears no real significance.
The US comes up empty-handed
Experts were unequivocal in their belief that the US should have shot down the idea of aligning with Russia to address cybersecurity.
“It’s unclear what President Trump might have in mind with such a collaboration,” Finkelstein said, “but if it suggests that there would be any intelligence-sharing around cyber threats, then not only is it a false symbolism of constructive action for the US, but it’s also very dangerous because we shouldn’t be sharing sensitive information with the Russians on cyber interference.”
Russia has increasingly emerged as a central figure following a slew of high-profile cyberattacks over the past few years. In addition to interfering in the US election, Russia is also thought to be the culprit behind an elaborate effort to turn Ukraine into a cyberweapon testing ground.
In 2015, a massive cyberattack leveled against the country’s power grid cut electricity to almost 250,000 Ukrainians. Cybersecurity experts linked the attack to IP addresses associated with Russia. Since then, Wired magazine’s Andy Greenberg reported, Ukraine has seen a growing crisis in which an increasing number of corporations and government agencies have been hit by cyberattacks in a “rapid, remorseless succession.”
Officials also believe Russia may have been behind last month’s “Petya” cyberattack that crippled countries and corporations across the globe.
And most recently, Russia is thought to have carried out attacks on at least a dozen US nuclear facilities. The hacks raised red flags for investigators who worry that Russia may be gearing up to levy an attack against the US power grid. If that were the case, it would fit into a pattern adopted by Russia in the past, particularly as it relates to Ukraine.
It doesn’t look like the US would get anything out of an agreement to work with Russia on cybersecurity, Finkelstein said. “Having a cyber commission to investigate hacking and prevent it is what Trump may think he got out of this, but it in fact will further jeopardize national security” if the US opens its doors to Russia, she added. The effort may destabilize the US’ already-shaky position on the global stage, because it places the US “fundamentally compromised position relative to Russia.”
Instead of working hand-in-hand with Russia to curb future interference and address cybersecurity, the US should retaliate and target key players in Russia’s cyber industry like Kaspersky Labs, McGeorge said.
Kaspersky Labs is a well-known Russian cybersecurity firm that has long raised red flags within the US intelligence community. Last month, it emerged that the FBI had launched an investigation into Kaspersky Labs’ relationship to the Kremlin, and the FBI is reportedly interviewing American employees who work for the firm.
“The intelligence community has come out and said there’s internal evidence saying Kaspersky is not playing fair and can’t really be trusted,” McGeorge said. “It would send a good message and be a clear statement to Russia if the US government responded in kind and took aim exactly at the Russian cyber industry. That’s what a deterrent would look like.”