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Putin Wants a Truce in Cyberspace — While Denying Russian Interference

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With an eye to a possible Biden presidency, the Russian leader called for a “reboot” on information security but offered no concessions.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, along with Sergei Shoigu, left, Russia’s defense minister, and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of the armed forces, watching military exercises on Friday. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, along with Sergei Shoigu, left, Russia’s defense minister, and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of the armed forces, watching military exercises on Friday.Credit…Pool photo by Mikhail Klimentyev Anton TroianovskiDavid E. Sanger

  • Sept. 25, 2020

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Friday proposed a truce with the United States in cyberspace, without acknowledging that his country has repeatedly used cybertechniques to attack elections from the Ukraine to the United States, stolen emails from the Defense Department to the White House, and developed some of the world’s most sophisticated disinformation efforts.

Mr. Putin issued an unusual written statement outlining a four-point plan for what he called a “reboot” in the relationship between the United States and Russia in the field of information security. Moscow and Washington, he wrote, should issue “guarantees of nonintervention into the internal affairs of each other, including into electoral processes.”

He urged a bilateral agreement “on preventing incidents in the information space,” modeled on Cold War-era arms control treaties.

But beyond the conciliatory language, Mr. Putin’s statement offered no hint that Moscow was prepared to make any specific concessions on its greatly accelerated use of cyberweapons over the past decade — sometimes directly, sometimes through proxies. Russia continues to deny interfering in American politics, while insisting that the United States meddles in Russian politics by backing opponents of Mr. Putin.

“As we have said more than once, there is no basis” for claims that Russia has meddled in American elections, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said in his own statement on Friday. “We are in favor of a professional and constructive discussion of all existing problems and claims at the negotiating table.”

President Trump has said repeatedly that he is tempted to believe Mr. Putin’s insistence that Russia had no role in the 2016 election, although the spokesman for the National Security Council, John Ullyot, dismissed Mr. Putin’s offer on Friday.

“It is hard to take such statements seriously when Russia, China, Iran and others have sought to undermine our election process,’’ Mr. Ullyot said, following Mr. Trump in suggesting the problem goes beyond Russia.

“It is possible that this offer is a further effort by Russia to create divisions in the United States,’’ he said.

Russia has floated similar proposals before, including when Mr. Putin met with President Trump in Helsinki, Finland, in 2018. Mr. Trump warmed to them at first, saying he would work with Russia to create “an impenetrable cybersecurity unit” designed to assure “that election hacking, and many other negative things, will be guarded and safe.”

But Mr. Trump’s declaration was mocked by many, including some members of the president’s own staff, who asked how the United States would jointly patrol cyberspace with one of the world’s leaders in cyberespionage. At around the same time, the United States was placing malware inside Russia’s electric grid and making no effort to hide it, in hopes of deterring Moscow from attacking the American grid.

It was not clear if Mr. Putin was calling for the reset because of the intense focus on Russian activity around the 2020 election, or because firms like Microsoft have identified continued Russian attacks, some from groups linked to the military and Russian intelligence agencies.

This time, Mr. Putin is calling for a reset less than six weeks before an American presidential election that could put an outspoken critic of the Kremlin — former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. — in the White House. The move appeared at least in part to be an attempt to present a friendlier face in response to American officials’ recent statements that Russia had mounted clandestine efforts to weaken Mr. Biden in the presidential race.

Christopher A. Wray, the director of the F.B.I., warned last week that Russia was actively pursuing a disinformation campaign against Mr. Biden. That led to a rebuke of Mr. Wray from Mr. Trump. And a recent C.I.A. analysis concluded that it was likely Mr. Putin was continuing to approve and direct interference operations aimed at raising Mr. Trump’s re-election chances.

ImageChristopher Wray, the F.B.I. director, told lawmakers last week that Russia was engaging in “very active efforts” to influence the 2020 election. Christopher Wray, the F.B.I. director, told lawmakers last week that Russia was engaging in “very active efforts” to influence the 2020 election.Credit…Pool photo by Chip Somodevilla

“It’s possible that in the Kremlin they understand that Biden is likely to win,” said Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research organization close to the Russian government. “They are preparing for a Democratic administration that could be even tougher toward Russia than a Republican one.”

Both Russia and China have periodically proposed cybersecurity treaties, including requirements that everyone logging into the internet be required to use their true identity. While such proposals might limit illicit activity — if they could be enforced — they would also make it easier for the world’s autocrats to hunt down dissidents.

Most academic experts have concluded that the treaties that led to arms reductions from the 1960s forward were unlikely to work in cyberspace. Nuclear weapons were in the hands of a small number of states; cyberweapons are controlled by countries, criminal groups, activists and teenagers. Often, states conduct their cyberactivities through proxies, including criminal groups. All those would make treaties fairly useless.

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