The Trump administration is still open to a cyber dialogue with Russia — despite having no plans to form the joint U.S.-Russian election security team that President Donald Trump floated to much disbelief last weekend.
White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert on Friday tried to dispel the confusion that has reigned since Trump offered his suggestion, which he later walked back. After that backlash, it appeared that the administration had essentially scuttled the State Department’s previously expressed intent to have broader cyber policy talks with Moscow.
But Bossert stressed that while any sort of “partnership” with Russia is off the table, the door is still open for a “dialogue.”
“We are not discussing a partnership here,” Bossert told reporters on Air Force One. “We wouldn’t have the conversation about partnership. But we had to have a dialogue, and that’s where we’ll start.”
Such conversations are mostly in line with Obama-era digital diplomacy between Washington and Moscow, and would be typical for any new administration, cyber policy experts said. It’s also a much different approach than Trump described in his startling announcement Sunday, when he tweeted that he and Russian leader Vladimir Putin had discussed creating “an impenetrable Cyber Security unit” to help guard against “election hacking.”
Bossert explained that only a tentative cyber dialogue is on the table. But it remains to be seen how such talks might function or whom they would include — and cyber experts are doubtful they will produce tangible results, despite acknowledging that the efforts are worthy.
Ely Kahn, who served on the National Security Council’s cyber team from 2009 to 2010 and co-founded the security firm Sqrrl, said he had “low expectations that much will be accomplished” through any cyber talks with Russia, “but opening up lines of communication is always a good thing.”
Bossert indicated that any talks would echo a major cyber agreement the Obama administration struck with Moscow in 2013, in which the two sides agreed to swap information on digital crime and hacking threats. Moscow and Washington also set up a Cold War-style cyber “hotline” to reduce the risks of a digital incident escalating dangerously.
Much of that deal was effectively suspended after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and the U.S. and its allies imposed crippling economic sanctions on Moscow.
Former Obama cyber officials also recalled that Russia evinced no interest in compromising on the issues driving digital tensions between the two sides, which historically have included Moscow’s shielding of Russia-based cyber miscreants and the suspected Kremlin-backed digital intrusions of America’s most vital infrastructure. Researchers say this behavior has not ceased — recent media reports have even linked Russia to a series of digital infiltrations at nuclear plants.
Bossert described the meeting between Trump and Putin as the potential first step to restarting that canceled dialogue.
“What was broached at that G-20 conversation, as I understand it, was an opportunity to continue a dialogue — one that had in the past existed between the two countries, and I think one that we could pursue in the future with the appropriate reservations and the appropriate expectations," Bossert said.
Cybersecurity experts and former Obama administration officials insisted that any attempt to resume a cyber dialogue with Russia should come with clear goals and firm commitments from the Kremlin to change its behavior.
“Bilateral working groups can only be successful once conditions have been set to ensure there’s an alignment of strategic interests,” said Chris Finan, who served as a director for cyber policy on Obama’s NSC from 2011 to 2012. “The previous discussions with the Russians were broken off when it was clear that the Russians saw more benefit in competition than collaboration.”
Bossert on Friday indicated that he shared such an approach.
The two sides, he said, would “at least start with what is acceptable behavior in cyberspace and what norms and expectations that we’ll have moving forward, long before you get into the enforcement of those rules or anywhere near before we get into a partnership.”
Still, former officials who handled cyber issues are leery of what concessions the Trump administration might give to Moscow — and how that might look to the international community. During their meeting, Putin asked Trump for proof of the alleged Russian election meddling, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and experts said they worried about how much information — and what kinds — might be shared during any U.S.-Russia talks.
“For years Moscow has tested the limits of our information exchange mechanisms, attempting to extract information on political opponents, dissidents, exiles and even our own cyber capabilities,” said R. David Edelman, a former State Department and NSC cyber official who negotiated with Russia on the issue. “Giving a country with that record access to sensitive information about our cybersecurity capabilities — and perhaps inadvertently, our citizens — is a mistake.”
And several cyber experts were anxious that public pledges of teamwork with Russia on this sensitive topic might play poorly in the international arena at time when many American allies in Europe are fighting to keep Moscow’s digital agents out of their own elections.
France and Germany have accused the Kremlin of trying to meddle in their elections, and NATO on Monday announced it was supplying Ukraine with cyber tools to help the country bolster its digital defenses. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the support would help his country combat Russia’s online aggression.
Still, these cyber policy specialists don’t dismiss the concept of negotiating with Moscow on digital challenges. The Kremlin just has to be willing to actually negotiate, they said.
“If you’re going to have a meaningful conversation with them, they have to feel incentivized to change their behavior,” said a former White House official who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
And as it stands now, cyber watchers see little chance Russia will feel that pressure to change, given the minimal punishments the country has faced for its behavior and the inadequate digital barriers protecting U.S. networks. Even some Obama-era officials have conceded there were few serious penalties imposed on Moscow for the wide-ranging interference campaign that rattled last year’s presidential race. And the current White House has expressed reservations about pending legislation that would hit Russia with more sanctions for its digital actions.
“Talking requires one to be open to the possibility of movement to the middle,” said the former White House official. “If you create a vehicle like that and it becomes clear there’s no chance of movement from the other side, then it no longer makes sense to be talking.”