Cyber Détente Part II: Russian Diplomatic and Strategic Self-Interest

Original at Freedom to Tinker.

The first post in this series rebutted the purported Russian motive for negotiations, avoiding a security dilemma. This second post posits two alternative self-interested Russian inducements for rapprochement: legitimizing use of force and strategic advantage.


An alternative rationale for talks advanced by the Russians is fear of “cyberterror” – not the capacity for offensive cyberwarfare, but its use against civilians. A weapons use treaty of this sort could have value in establishing a norm against civilian cyberattack… but there are already strong international treaties and norms against attacks aimed at civilians. And at any rate the untraceability of most cyberattacks will take the teeth out of any use-banning treaty of this sort.

The U.S. delegation is rightly skeptical of this motive; the Russians may well be raising cyberterror in the interest of legitimating use of conventional force. The Russians have repeatedly likened political dissidence to cyberterror, and a substantive cyberterrorism treaty may be submitted by Russia as license to pursue political vendettas with conventional force. To probe how such a treaty might function, consider first a hypothetical full-blown infrastructure-crippling act of cyberterror where the perpetrator is known – Russia already need not restrain itself in retaliating. On the other hand, consider the inevitable website defacements by Chechen separatists or Georgian sympathizers in the midst of increasing hostilities – acts of cyberterrorism in violation of a treaty will assuredly be added to the list of provocations should Russia elect to engage in armed conflict.

This simple thought experiment reveals the deep faultlines that will emerge in negotiating any cyberterrorism treaty. Where is the boundary between vandalism (and other petty cybercrime) and cyberterror? What if acts are committed, as is often the case, by nationals of a state but not its government? What proof is required to sustain an allegation of cyberterror? Doubtlessly the Russian delegation would advance a broad definition of cyberterror, while the Americans would propose a narrowly circumscribed definition. Even if, improbably, the U.S. and Russia negotiated to a shared definition of cyberterror, I fail to see how it could be articulated in a manner not prone to later manipulation. It is not difficult to imagine, for example, how trivial defacement of a bank’s website might be shoehorned into a narrow definition: “destructive acts targeting critical civilian infrastructure.”

Another compelling motive for the Russians is realist self-interest: the Russians may believe they will gain a strategic advantage with a capacity-limiting cyberwarfare treaty. At first blush this seems an implausible reading – the U.S., with its technologically advanced and integrated armed forces, appears a far richer target for cyberattack than Russia given its reliance on decrepit Soviet equipment. Moreover, anecdotally the U.S. military has proven highly vulnerable: multiple unattributed attacks have penetrated defense-related systems (most prominently in 2007), and late last year the Wall Street Journal reported Iraqi militants trivially intercepted live video from Predator drones. But looking ahead a Russian self-interest motive is more plausible. Russia has made no secret of its attempts to rapidly stand up modern, professional armed forces, and in 2009 alone increased military spending by over 25% (projects include a revamped navy and a satellite positioning system, among many others). To accomplish this end the Russians may rely to a large degree on information technology, and particularly on commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software. Lacking time and finances the Russians may be unable to secure their new military systems against cyberattack. Thus while at present the U.S. is more vulnerable, in future Russia may have greater weaknesses. Locking in a cyberwarfare arms control agreement now, while the U.S. is more likely to sign on, could therefore be in Russia’s long-term strategic self-interest.

The specific offensive capabilities Russia has reportedly sought to ban are strongly corroborative of this self-interest rationale. In prior negotiations the Russian delegation has signaled particular concern of deliberately planted software and hardware that would allow disabling or co-opting military equipment. The U.S. will likely have far greater success in developing assets of this sort given the at times close relationship between intelligence agencies and commercial IT firms (e.g. the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal) and the prevalence of American IT worldwide in military applications (think Windows). Russia, on the other hand, would likely have to rely on human intelligence to place assets of this sort.

Russia’s renewed interest in bilateral cybersecurity negotiations also belies its purported security dilemma rationale. Russian interest in talks lapsed between 1996 and 2009, suggesting a novel stimulus is at work, not some long-standing fear of a security dilemma. The recent rise of alleged “cyberterror” and attempts to modernize Russian armed forces – especially in the wake of the 2008 South Ossetia War with Georgia – far better correlate with Russia’s eagerness to come to the table.

To put a point on these two posts, I submit legitimization of use of force and strategic self-interest are far more plausible Russian motives for cybersecurity negotiations than the purported rationale of avoiding a security dilemma and consequent arms race or destabilization. In the following post I will explore the U.S. delegation’s position and argue the American response to Russia’s proposals is well-calibrated.