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After Geneva: US – Russia Strategy Moving Forward

EXPERT POINT OF VIEW – On June 16, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for just under four hours in Geneva. It was Mr Biden’s first meeting with 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 as low by both sides in advance and assessed a little more positively after the conclusion of the meeting. The meeting provided an opportunity for the two leaders to present grievances and warnings to the other (and to be firm in their national constituencies). Beyond presenting the opportunity to let off steam, the results of the meeting appear modest: the agreement to reinstate the ambassadors in their posts, to resume bilateral discussions on arms control, to conduct discussions on “stability”. strategic ”and to hold open-ended consultations on cyber. Typically, Mr. Putin has rejected all of Mr. Biden’s assertions about Russian actions and launched counter-charges referring to hostile US actions.

Among the summit deliverables, cyber will undoubtedly prove to be the most problematic monitoring area. Mr Biden apparently handed Mr Putin a list of 16 critical US infrastructure sectors that should be considered “off limits” for cyber attacks, such as “red lines” not to be crossed without the risk of significant retaliation. For his part, Mr. Putin asserted that it is Russia that is the victim of cyber attacks from the territory of the United States and its NATO partners and is also the victim of attempts to interfere in the Russian elections. The challenge for cyber discussions in the future will revolve around three areas: different interpretations of the relevance of deterrence theory in today’s cyber environment, attribution and control.

Mr Biden’s firm comments to Mr Putin on recent cyberattacks against the United States such as the ransomware attack on Colonial Pipelines (Mr Biden reportedly asked Mr Putin how he would react if Russian pipelines were affected? ) and its provision of a list of “off-limits” US infrastructure entities suggests a deep belief in this administration that Russia can be deterred from engaging in the future conduct of cyber operations against US targets or ” sanction ”attacks originating in the territory of the Russian Federation by criminal groups.

Unfortunately, it is highly likely that neither Mr. Putin nor those who control the levers of Russian cyber operations will agree that the theory of deterrence applies. Deterrence only works when both parties know the other is capable of – and willing to – cause significant harm to the other.

The Russian side probably thinks (and perhaps has amply demonstrated) that the United States is disproportionately vulnerable to cyber risks at all levels of its economic, societal, and political infrastructure, while Russia is not. There is a reason why the use of cyber tools has become a central part of Russian strategic doctrine. They work and appear to be a legitimate tool that falls short of conventional warfare. Hybrid warfare using computer tools, the Russian side would say, is no different from the economic war Russia is experiencing because of the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies.

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