According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, U.S. President Barack Obama on October 31 contacted Russian President Vladimir Putin and warned him that the United States would consider a cyber-attack on the November 8 U.S. election to be a serious matter.
Ignatius wrote that the message was sent via "a special channel created in 2013 as part of the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, using a template designed for crisis communication."
The New York Times reported on November 16 that Obama "sent the message over a rarely used system: a hotline connecting the Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers in both countries, which they had agreed three years ago could also be employed to deal with major cyber incidents."
On December 19, NBC News reported that Obama used “the latest incarnation of an old Cold War communications system — the so-called ‘Red Phone’ that connects Moscow to Washington.”
The NBC report quoted an unnamed U.S. official describing the message as saying "'international law, including the law for armed conflict, applies to actions in cyberspace."
When asked by Russian reporters specifically about the use of the “Red Phone,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on December 21 that it is “an ordinary closed line which heads of state use for telephone conversations."
State-run Pravda said Peskov characterized the NBC report on the "Red Phone" and media pickups about it as a "sensational" piece of news.
But German researcher Tobias Nanz, who authored academic papers about the “Red Phone,” told Polygraph.info via email: “Perhaps Peskov is not aware of the history and the semantic of the hotline. It is a crisis communication system that was - and I think still is - in a way holy. The hotline, or the fictitious ‘Red Phone,’ was never installed for routine communication.”
According to the NBC News report:
"The so-called "Red Phone" system is used to communicate in moments of crisis, such as the September 11, 2001 terror attacks or the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was never a literal phone, instead beginning as teletype more than 50 years ago, then converting to first fax and then email to link the U.S. and Russia through their Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers.
"In 2013, relying on the pre-existing links with Russia through the Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers, the Obama administration added a channel intended to send email messages and attachments about cyber incidents. This Cyber CBM channel is one of a series of cyber-related confidence-building measures meant to address the need for secure and reliable lines of communication about cybersecurity issues of national concern."
That system was established in June 1963 for use in emergencies as stated in the Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and the then Soviet Union. The communication method came to existence during the Cuban missile crisis. It was administered by military personnel with top secret clearance.
Since then the system has been modernized several times. A computer to satellite connection that transfers encrypted messages and images digitally was established in 2008.
The system has been used during time of crisis including during a conflict between India and Pakistan in 1971, the 1973 Yom Kippur war between Israel and Arab countries, the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
U.S. news reports say that the use of a crisis communication system marked the first time in his presidency that Obama communicated to Putin in this way.
It underscored the seriousness of Obama's message to Putin, researcher Nanz said.
“In diplomacy, the choice of a communication medium marks a political statement that is more important than the content of the message,” he said.