But on June 29, not long before these two incidents, the Biden administration took an action that sent a radically different message — by announcing its support for a U.N. effort to draw up international “rules of the road” for cyberspace — an effort largely directed by Russia.
Taken together, these stories tell you everything you need to know about the current state of play in cyberspace: The United States professes its desire to stand up to Russian hackers even as it allows Moscow to shape international norms to support its own interests. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.
Russia has a penchant for using the United Nations to further its malign goals. For months, Kremlin officials threatened to use their U.N. Security Council veto power to restrict humanitarian aid shipments to Syria — part of President Vladimir Putin’s continuing efforts to bolster the allied regime of Bashar al-Assad. (Last week Moscow grudgingly agreed to allow a single border crossing for aid shipments rather than the four originally envisaged.) Russia has also repeatedly blocked U.N. efforts to condemn the use of chemical weapons and regime-sponsored violence against civilians in Syria. It has used its membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council to provide cover for its many domestic human rights abuses.
Why should the United States expect Russia — with its authoritarian control over its domestic Internet — to act any differently when it comes to cyberspace? In all likelihood, Russia will establish revisionist rules that bolster authoritarianism by building on its competitors’ affinity for cheap talk over decisive action.
The Kremlin has a long-established pattern of hamstringing American efforts to achieve productive outcomes in the United Nations. In 2018, after an initial halt in U.N. negotiations on cyberthreat policy, Russia splintered the U.N.’s efforts by pioneering the Open-Ended Working Group and has since used the group to ensure that its favored positions on cyber issues are adopted by the broader United Nations. Although both the United States and Russia put forward two separate resolutions on cybercrime regulations, Russia outmaneuvered the United States by gaining the U.N.’s approval to draft a global treaty to combat cybercrime.
Russia has proposed a U.N. cybercrime resolution that has the admirable goal of combating the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes. Yet there’s little reason to doubt that, in practice, Moscow will use the provisions to censor its domestic Internet and freedom of expression on social media. Russia’s draft treaty embodies the so-called principle of digital “sovereignty” that Moscow and Beijing have been promoting for years. Earlier this year, Russia banded together with China in an attempted takeover of the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union to further establish digital sovereignty in the international system.
Russia understands how much stock its Western counterparts place in dialogue, accordingly using the United Nations to conduct lengthy, distracting and fruitless negotiations. While Western leaders think they are making headway with the Kremlin by sitting down and talking, Russia relentlessly continues to pursue its own agenda. In a classic example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov released an article in June pledging cooperation with the United States in cyberspace, only to spend most of the statement denouncing Western liberalism, attacking the rules-based world order, undermining U.S. leadership and justifying China’s malign activities.
The United States needs to radically alter its approach when it comes to Russia and cybersecurity. Although the nature of cyberspace means that some limited international cooperation is necessary, Washington should stop acting as though U.N. treaties are a solution. Given that Russia and other authoritarian states are sure to use these forums to further their own goals, the United States must be realistic about Russia’s intentions and the role of international agreements in addressing cyberthreats. More immediately, the United States should push hard to rally like-minded democracies to combat authoritarian misuse of U.N. mechanisms.
Above all, the United States should learn from history. It was successful nuclear deterrence, not the United Nations, that prevented a Cold War apocalypse. Russia, China and non-state actors — all of which routinely violate international law — will not abide by any reasonable treaty system; they will use it, instead, to tie the hands of their rivals. But the United States can stop them from launching cyberattacks by vigorously pursing new offensive and defensive cyber-capabilities.
Russia’s influence over cyber rule-making at the United Nations is dangerous, and the Biden administration must not allow the fox to guard the digital henhouse — not least in the wake of two major hacks. Make no mistake: Deterrence, not multilateralism, will determine America’s cyber prospects with Russia.