Putin calls for new non-aggression pact on cyberwarfare

Six weeks ahead of the US presidential election that he has been accused of meddling in, Vladimir Putin has unexpectedly proposed a new global non-aggression pact on cyberwarfare.

In a four-point plan released on the Kremlin’s website on Friday, the Russian president suggested that an agreement could be shaped around the principles of a 1972 US-Soviet treaty to prevent escalation of incidents at sea. It could even include electoral processes, he said.

Never one to undersell on theatre, Mr Putin concluded by urging the US and other countries not to make cybersecurity a “hostage of political disagreement”. Mass cyber-confrontation was one of the main threats of the times, he said. “The leading players … have a particular responsibility.”

Cyberwar is not well defined legally, but whatever its nature, Russia and the west have for a long time been keen and active players.

We know cyberbattles have been fought since at least 2007 – when Russian hackers appeared to overwhelm the Estonian internet with weeks of mass spamming  attacks. In the years since, attacks have become angrier and more sophisticated.

The west has linked Russia to all kinds of cybercrimes: from hacking power grids in Ukraine to infiltrating US civil infrastructure; from stealing coronavirus vaccine projects to disrupting the 2016 US presidential election. Most recently, on 9 September the US tech giant Microsoft declared that one of Joe Biden’s campaign organisations had been targeted by Russian state hackers.

The Kremlin has denied all the accusations and has made several claims of its own. In August, Oleg Khramov, deputy secretary of Russia’s security council, accused the US of being responsible for three-quarters of global cyberattacks. Whatever the truth, former US president Barack Obama made the unusual move in 2017 of disclosing some of the “retaliatory” cyber operations he had ordered against Russia.

It is unclear what may have prompted Mr Putin to make the proposal – and the timing of it. According to Philip Ingram, a former British military intelligence officer and cyber-expert, the Russian leader may be alarmed by new western capacities around the globe, and perhaps in Iran. However, it was far from the only factor on the table.

“It’s the kind of thing Putin might float if he was planning something – to give it additional plausible deniability,” he said. “Other factors are the US presidential elections, and Putin’s desire to give Donald Trump something to work with.”

It is not the first time that Russia has raised the prospect of a cybersecurity deal. Three years ago, Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, proposed the outlines of a pact, but the proposal was rejected unceremoniously in Washington.

Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat and security expert, said Mr Putin’s statement offered little more than an attempt to rehash the proposals. He predicted nothing would come of the “empty rhetoric”.  

Instead, Mr Frolov suggested that Mr Putin’s international grandstanding was a mitigating tactic, aimed at reducing international isolation following the nerve-agent poisoning of opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

“The United States has no choice but to enforce the 1991 Chemical Weapons Act, which calls for a downgrade in diplomatic ties,” Mr Frolov said.

“What you are seeing is Putin reminding the world he can still spoil the party.”

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