The US, Russia and China are managing cyber-war with vodka

By Eli Lake

In cyber-space, conflict is the norm when it comes to nation-states. Russia’s malware shows up on US power grids, and its online trolls try to influence elections. China, meanwhile, steals the personal data and intellectual property (IP) of leading American corporations. The US, for its part, has its hackers on a war footing.

So it may seem the prospects for dialogue — in this case, trialogue — are slim. Yet this is exactly what happened last month in Moscow among a group of former and current officials from China, Russia and the US. The ostensible purpose of the two-day meeting, hosted by the Russian foreign ministry, was to explore guidelines for conflicts within and among computer networks.

In the Trump era, this kind of parley has a political edge. The independent investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian hackers during the 2016 election has hung over the White House since President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Trump’s own efforts to launch a cyber-security dialogue with Russia were met with ridicule and shock when he first proposed it in 2017 after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But the organisers of these meetings are not Trump confidantes. Indeed, his supporters would probably call them members of the so-called deep state. On the US side they include Sean Kanuck, the former US national intelligence officer for cyber-issues, and John Mallery, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Kanuck, who was recently the director for cyber, space and future conflict for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told me that he and Mallery helped organise the first of these meetings in late 2016 at MIT. Since then, the group has had meetings in China, France, Washington and, most recently, Moscow. An earlier version of these unofficial talks began in the mid-2000s through Nato, but did not include China.

The main topic of the meeting, Kanuck told me, was “cyber-stability” — understanding confidence-building measures and the rules of engagement. “The purpose is to prevent a spiral of escalation in cyber-space,” he said.

It’s something experts have worried about for years: China steals a piece of naval technology. The US bugs China’s technical universities. China finds out and short-circuits Manhattan’s traffic system. America responds with cruise missiles fired at Beijing.

National spy agencies have a tacit understanding about diplomatic expulsions, Kanuck said: when the US kicks out four spies, it will judge Russia’s response by how many US agents it expels. A similar arrangement is needed for conflicts in cyber-space.

In this sense, there is an advantage to the less formal diplomacy of these gatherings, which are known in the West as “track 1.5” meetings because they include both current and former officials. Russians prefer the term “meetings with vodka.”

Terminology aside, the conferences have brought together important figures from all three countries. On the US side last month there was John Costello, who helps direct cyber-security policy at the US department of homeland security. Among the Russian delegation was Andrey Krutskikh, a senior Kremlin adviser on cyber-issues, who announced in 2017 that Russia was in the process of perfecting an information weapon that would place his country on equal footing with America. The Chinese delegation included Chen Zhimin, a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party and a former top official in his country’s cyber-space agency.

One exercise at the meetings was a simulated response to a hypothetical cyber-attack. Kanuck told me he does not read his counterparts the riot act; he knows his interlocutors have intimate knowledge of their own country’s cyber-operations against the West. Rather, Kanuck said, he wants to learn how China and Russia understand cyber-conflict in general.

Nigel Inkster, who worked for British intelligence for more than 30 years and has participated in the conferences, told me the meetings are also useful for more specific knowledge. “We see how people react to certain things, certain proposals. Later at night, after a few drinks and a good dinner, people might be more forthcoming.”

One insight Western participants have gleaned is the different emphases of the US and its rivals. The US focuses on “protecting the pipes so the internet remains functional”, Kanuck said. Russia and China, meanwhile, “are extremely focused on the content that transits those pipes”. They tend to focus on the ability of foreign actors to use the internet to influence public opinion, he said.

Rafal Rohozinksi, a senior fellow at the IISS, put it like this: “We complain, ‘Why can’t you give us access to or arrest an individual who operates a command-and-control server in St Petersburg?’ Russians will say, ‘Why won’t you take down this Chechen-operated website that sends information into Russia contrary to our laws?’”

It’s a valuable perspective for Americans to know. While analysts in Washington have focused on Russian disinformation and its efforts to influence US politics, their counterparts in Russia believe the West has been doing the same thing to Russia for years.

At the same time, this perspective also reveals the limits to these “meetings with vodka”: they can increase understanding, thereby making conflict more predictable, but this kind of diplomacy cannot end cyber-war. When or if US officials have a chance to take these talks to the next stage — including vodka but also people with the authority to change policy — they should be careful not to validate or enable Russian and Chinese censorship. We all want cyber-peace in our time, but not at the price of helping authoritarians silence digital dissent.

• Lake is a Bloomberg opinion columnist 

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