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Opinion The ice between the U.S. and Russia may be thawing — for now

President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

A modest thaw appears to have begun in the Biden administration’s relationship with Russia — including agreement on a little-noticed joint effort at the United Nations on the contentious issue of cybersecurity.

The Russian-American relationship, overall, remains a “mixed picture,” with sharp disagreements and suspicions on many issues, a senior State Department official said in an interview Tuesday. But the administration feels it’s making slow progress in some parts of the security agenda that President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin set in their summit in Geneva in June.

The joint cybersecurity initiative was packaged in a resolution submitted to the U.N. General Assembly last Friday. The language is mostly diplomatic boilerplate, but it commits the two countries to support two U.N. cyber efforts, one Russian-backed and the other American, that a year ago were on a collision course. The resolution has been co-sponsored by 55 countries and will likely pass overwhelmingly before year-end.

Russia and the United States, in essence, have agreed to seek a common set of “rules of the road” to prevent malicious cyberattacks. The two nations differ sharply about what those standards should be — and intense competition will continue in the trenches of the organizations that oversee global telecommunications. But in principle, there’s now a shared commitment to cybersecurity.

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Andrei Krutskikh, a top cyber adviser to Putin, recently hailed the joint resolution as a “historic moment,” according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, which termed the resolution “a real diplomatic breakthrough.” U.S. officials say that overstates the significance of the resolution, which State hasn’t announced formally.

“What we are doing is to lean into setting norms, standards and rules of the road for cyberspace through the U.N. and other international bodies,” said the senior State official. A year ago, Washington had been pressing its cybersecurity agenda through a report by the U.N.’s Group of Governmental Experts, while Russia had backed recommendations of a rival forum known as the “Open-ended Working Group.” The joint resolution embraces both.

“Despite our serious differences, the United States worked with Russia … to develop a resolution that welcomes these two reports and calls on states to be guided by them,” explained the senior official. “If the United States and Russia had put forward competing resolutions … Russia would have likely pushed forward (and likely passed) a resolution that would have doubled down on promoting authoritarian control of the Internet,” the official argued.

Russia also helped derail a Chinese proposal for a new U.N. working group to regulate data security, though that may have been more about Russia protecting its own turf than cooperating with the United States, according to independent experts. Russia didn’t want a possible competitor to its own working group, and Beijing ended up withdrawing the proposal.

Russia hasn’t yet delivered on curbing ransomware attacks by cybercriminals operating from its territory, a subject Biden discussed with Putin in a July phone call. Moscow agreed to form an expert group to assess the threat, but the State Department official said it hasn’t yet taken aggressive action against Russian-based hackers. “We’ve made it clear that if they won’t act, we will,” the U.S. official warned.

A Biden-Putin initiative at Geneva for new talks on strategic stability is also moving forward, but slowly. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman met her Russian counterpart, Sergei Ryabkov, in Geneva on Sept. 30 for a second round of follow-up discussions. They agreed to form two working groups, one dealing with objectives for future arms control talks and the other with new strategic capabilities. At a time when technology is transforming the future of warfare, the two sides are commendably groping for language with which to discuss arms control efforts in an age with new arsenals of weapons.

Russia has also been helpful on some other issues, officials say. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to press Iran to return to nuclear talks, and Lavrov did so promptly, the State official said. And though Moscow is aggressively pursuing its own interests in Afghanistan, it has also worked with the United States on some issues after the withdrawal of American troops.

The most ominous issue ahead is the still mysterious question of the “Havana syndrome” affecting U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers abroad. Russia is a prime suspect for what many believe are deliberate attacks using directed energy systems that have caused medical problems, sometimes severe, for about 200 U.S. government personnel.

When confronted by U.S. officials, the Russians deny any involvement — but that’s hardly conclusive. U.S. officials need stronger evidence than they’ve gathered so far. But if they find it, the current thaw could return to a deep freeze — or worse. If Russia is found to be deliberately targeting U.S. officials, a severe crisis lies ahead, recent cooperation notwithstanding.