On Sept. 25, the Kremlin website released an item headlined: “Statement by President of Russia Vladimir Putin on a comprehensive program of measures for restoring the Russia – U.S. cooperation in the field of international information security.”
“One of today’s major strategic challenges is the risk of a large-scale confrontation in the digital field,” the statement begins.
“A special responsibility for its prevention lies on the key players in the field of ensuring international information security (IIS). In this regard, we would like to once again address the U.S. with a suggestion to agree on a comprehensive program of practical measures to reboot our relations in the field of security in the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).”
The statement calls on the U.S. and Russia to “exchange, in a mutually acceptable format, guarantees of non-intervention into internal affairs of each other, including into electoral processes, inter alia, by means of the ICTs and high-tech methods.”
The Putin statement is misleading.
It is well established that Russia has intervened in the internal affairs of not only the United States, but also Russia’s neighbors and western European countries, using a variety of means.
The Russian government, including Putin himself, has resolutely denied having engaged in any of these acts of interference, from social media trolling operations to sophisticated cyberattacks.
U.S. intelligence agencies have said Russia’s efforts to meddle in the upcoming U.S. presidential election – online and via other means – are continuing.
The 2016 Election
The U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia conducted a campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election on behalf of then-candidate Donald Trump. U.S. intelligence officials issued a warning about the effort in the month prior to the November 2016 vote, after which former President Barack Obama sanctioned Russian actors.
An extensive investigation carried out by U.S. Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed a complex Russian operation designed to aid Trump.
“The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” the executive summary for the first of two volumes of Mueller’s report stated.
“Evidence of Russian government operations began to surface in mid-2016. In June, the Democratic National Committee and its cyber response team publicly announced that Russian hackers had compromised its computer network. Releases of hacked materials – hacks that public reporting soon attributed to the Russian government – began that same month. Additional releases followed in July through the organization WikiLeaks, with further releases in October and November.”
In February 2018, Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals in connection with the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, better known as the “troll factory,” which played a key role in the 2016 interference and continues to do so today.
On Aug. 18, 2020, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report with similar findings, backing up Mueller’s earlier investigation.
“The Committee found that the Russian government engaged in an aggressive, multifaceted effort to influence, or attempt to influence, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election,” the committee’s report stated. It concluded the Russians targeted, among other things, election systems in all 50 U.S. states and “were in a position” to change voter data, although that did not occur.
Putin has denied all allegations of interference, most famously at the July 2018 Helsinki summit, when Trump appeared to accept Putin’s word. "President Putin says it's not Russia. I don't see any reason why it would be," Trump said.
But U.S. intelligence sources have said the Russians are still at it.
In August, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) issued a report on foreign influence in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, assessing attempted interference by Russia, China and Iran.
“We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment,’” the report stated, referring to Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.
The ODNI report did not specifically mention cyberattacks or hacking, as in the 2016 campaign, but did cite online and social media efforts.
President Trump and his allies have repeatedly disputed that Russia helped him win the 2016 election. In August 2020, various U.S. media reported allegations that the White House tried to pressure intelligence agencies to drop a section from the 2019 National Intelligence Estimate which pointed to ongoing Russian interference aimed at supporting Trump. The report was later released without language specifying Russian support for any particular candidate.
On Sept. 17, FBI director Christopher Wray testified before Congress, reiterating that Russia’s election interference was ongoing and that it was in part aimed at attacking presidential candidate Joe Biden.
U.S. Has Targets, Too
Although Russia has a long reputation for international cyberattacks, the U.S. has not been idle in this sphere. In a July 2020 interview, Trump disclosed information about a cyberattack carried out against the Internet Research Agency.
In June 2019, The New York Times reported that the U.S. was stepping up its cyber infiltration capability by targeting the Russian power grid as a demonstration, with a hope of deterring Russian future cyberattacks.
The Times reported that Trump had authorized new tasks for the U.S. Cyber Command: “[N] now the American strategy has shifted more toward offense, officials say, with the placement of potentially crippling malware inside the Russian system at a depth and with an aggressiveness that had never been tried before. It is intended partly as a warning, and partly to be poised to conduct cyberstrikes if a major conflict broke out between Washington and Moscow.”
In his statement, Putin said the goal was to avert such conflicts.
“We call on the U.S. to greenlight the Russian-American professional expert dialogue on (cybersecurity) without making it a hostage to our political disagreements,” he said.
“These measures are aimed at building up trust between our States, promoting security and prosperity of our peoples. They will significantly contribute to ensuring global peace in the information space.”