May 29, 2017

Cyber Détente Part III: American Procedural Negotiation

The first post in this series rebutted the purported Russian motive for renewed cybersecurity negotiations and the second advanced more plausible self-interested rationales. This third and final post of the series examines the U.S. negotiating position through both substantive and procedural lenses.


American interest in a substantive cybersecurity deal appears limited, and the U.S. is rightly skeptical of Russian motives (perhaps for the reasons detailed in the prior two posts). Negotiators have publicly expressed support for institutional cooperation on the closely related issue of cybercrime, but firmly oppose an arms control or cyberterrorism treaty. This tenuous commitment is further implicated by the U.S. delegation’s composition. Representation of the NSA, State, DoD, and DHS suggests only a preliminary willingness to hear the Russians out and minimal consideration of a full-on bilateral negotiation.

While the cybersecurity talks may thus be substantively vacuous, they have great procedural merit when viewed in the context of shifting Russian relations and perceptions of cybersecurity.

The Bush administration’s Russia policy was marked by antagonism; proposed missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic and NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine particularly rankled the Kremlin. Upon taking office the Obama administration committed to “press[ing] the reset button” on U.S.-Russia relations by recommitting to cooperation in areas of shared interest.

Cybersecurity talks may best be evaluated as a facet of this systemic “reset.” Earnest discussions – including fruitless ones – may contribute towards a collegial relationship and further other more substantively promising negotiations between the two powers. The cybersecurity topic is particularly well suited for this role in that it brings often less-than-friendly defense, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies to the same table.

Inside-the-beltway perceptions of cybersecurity have also experienced a sea change. In the early Bush administration cybersecurity problems were predominantly construed as cybercrime problems, and consequently within the purview of law enforcement. For example, one of the first “major actions” advocated by the White House’s 2003 National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace was, “[e]nhance law enforcement’s capabilities for preventing and prosecuting cyberspace attacks.” But by the Obama administration cybersecurity was perceived as a national security issue; the 2009 Cyberspace Policy Review located primary responsibility for cybersecurity in the National Security Council.

This shift suggests additional procedural causes for renewed U.S.-Russia and UN cybersecurity talks. Not only do the discussions reflect the new perception of cybersecurity as a national security issue, but also they nudge other nations towards that view. And directly engaging defense and intelligence agencies accustoms them to viewing cybersecurity as an international issue within their domain.

The U.S. response of simultaneously substantively balking at and procedurally engaging with Russia on cybersecurity appears well-calibrated. Where meager opportunity exists for concluding a meaningful cybersecurity instrument given the Russian motives discussed earlier, the U.S. is nonetheless generating value.

While this favorable outcome is reassuring, it is by no means guaranteed for future cybersecurity talks. There is already a noxious atmosphere of often unwarranted alarmism about cyberwarfare and free-form parallels drawn between cyberattack and weapons of mass destruction. Admix the recurrently prophesied “Digital Pearl Harbor” and it is easy to imagine how an international compact on cybersecurity could look all-too-appealing. This pitfall can only be avoided by training an informed, critical eye on states’ motives to develop the appropriate – if any – cybersecurity negotiating position.

Cyber Détente Part II: Russian Diplomatic and Strategic Self-Interest

The first post in this series rebutted the purported Russian motive for negotiations, avoiding a security dilemma. This second post posits two alternative self-interested Russian inducements for rapprochement: legitimizing use of force and strategic advantage.


An alternative rationale for talks advanced by the Russians is fear of “cyberterror” – not the capacity for offensive cyberwarfare, but its use against civilians. A weapons use treaty of this sort could have value in establishing a norm against civilian cyberattack… but there are already strong international treaties and norms against attacks aimed at civilians. And at any rate the untraceability of most cyberattacks will take the teeth out of any use-banning treaty of this sort.

The U.S. delegation is rightly skeptical of this motive; the Russians may well be raising cyberterror in the interest of legitimating use of conventional force. The Russians have repeatedly likened political dissidence to cyberterror, and a substantive cyberterrorism treaty may be submitted by Russia as license to pursue political vendettas with conventional force. To probe how such a treaty might function, consider first a hypothetical full-blown infrastructure-crippling act of cyberterror where the perpetrator is known – Russia already need not restrain itself in retaliating. On the other hand, consider the inevitable website defacements by Chechen separatists or Georgian sympathizers in the midst of increasing hostilities – acts of cyberterrorism in violation of a treaty will assuredly be added to the list of provocations should Russia elect to engage in armed conflict.

This simple thought experiment reveals the deep faultlines that will emerge in negotiating any cyberterrorism treaty. Where is the boundary between vandalism (and other petty cybercrime) and cyberterror? What if acts are committed, as is often the case, by nationals of a state but not its government? What proof is required to sustain an allegation of cyberterror? Doubtlessly the Russian delegation would advance a broad definition of cyberterror, while the Americans would propose a narrowly circumscribed definition. Even if, improbably, the U.S. and Russia negotiated to a shared definition of cyberterror, I fail to see how it could be articulated in a manner not prone to later manipulation. It is not difficult to imagine, for example, how trivial defacement of a bank’s website might be shoehorned into a narrow definition: “destructive acts targeting critical civilian infrastructure.”

Another compelling motive for the Russians is realist self-interest: the Russians may believe they will gain a strategic advantage with a capacity-limiting cyberwarfare treaty. At first blush this seems an implausible reading – the U.S., with its technologically advanced and integrated armed forces, appears a far richer target for cyberattack than Russia given its reliance on decrepit Soviet equipment. Moreover, anecdotally the U.S. military has proven highly vulnerable: multiple unattributed attacks have penetrated defense-related systems (most prominently in 2007), and late last year the Wall Street Journal reported Iraqi militants trivially intercepted live video from Predator drones. But looking ahead a Russian self-interest motive is more plausible. Russia has made no secret of its attempts to rapidly stand up modern, professional armed forces, and in 2009 alone increased military spending by over 25% (projects include a revamped navy and a satellite positioning system, among many others). To accomplish this end the Russians may rely to a large degree on information technology, and particularly on commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software. Lacking time and finances the Russians may be unable to secure their new military systems against cyberattack. Thus while at present the U.S. is more vulnerable, in future Russia may have greater weaknesses. Locking in a cyberwarfare arms control agreement now, while the U.S. is more likely to sign on, could therefore be in Russia’s long-term strategic self-interest.

The specific offensive capabilities Russia has reportedly sought to ban are strongly corroborative of this self-interest rationale. In prior negotiations the Russian delegation has signaled particular concern of deliberately planted software and hardware that would allow disabling or co-opting military equipment. The U.S. will likely have far greater success in developing assets of this sort given the at times close relationship between intelligence agencies and commercial IT firms (e.g. the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal) and the prevalence of American IT worldwide in military applications (think Windows). Russia, on the other hand, would likely have to rely on human intelligence to place assets of this sort.

Russia’s renewed interest in bilateral cybersecurity negotiations also belies its purported security dilemma rationale. Russian interest in talks lapsed between 1996 and 2009, suggesting a novel stimulus is at work, not some long-standing fear of a security dilemma. The recent rise of alleged “cyberterror” and attempts to modernize Russian armed forces – especially in the wake of the 2008 South Ossetia War with Georgia – far better correlate with Russia’s eagerness to come to the table.

To put a point on these two posts, I submit legitimization of use of force and strategic self-interest are far more plausible Russian motives for cybersecurity negotiations than the purported rationale of avoiding a security dilemma and consequent arms race or destabilization. In the following post I will explore the U.S. delegation’s position and argue the American response to Russia’s proposals is well-calibrated.

Cyber Détente Part I: A Security Dilemma?

Late last year the Obama administration reopened talks with Russia over the militarization of cyberspace and assented to cybersecurity discussion in the United Nations First Committee (Disarmament and National Security). My intention in this three-part series is to probe Russian and American foreign policy on cyberwarfare and advance the thesis that the Russians are negotiating for specific strategic or diplomatic gains, while the Americans are primarily procedurally invested owing to the “reset” in Russian relations and changing perceptions of cyberwarfare.

This first post rebuts the Russians’ purported rationale for talks: avoiding a security dilemma.


The Russians seek a cyberwarfare arms control instrument ostensibly to avoid a security dilemma and arms race, in the vein of past arrangements for nuclear weapons (i.e. SALT I/II, START I/II, and SORT) and anti-ballistic missile technology (ABM), among others. This basis for negotiations does not withstand scrutiny.

A security dilemma may arise where a state has the opportunity to develop a game-changing new weapons system, even if for purely defensive purposes. For fear of strategic disadvantage other powers may elect to develop the weapon – an arms race – resulting in none gaining a strategic advantage and all bearing a significant cost. Alternatively, technologically incapable of matching or unable to afford the development, other states may take destabilizing offensive steps. Arms control treaties resolve this form of security dilemma by committing states to not developing certain weapons.

Cyberwarfare lacks necessary elements of a security dilemma. First and foremost, cyberwarfare capabilities defy quantifiability. Consider the Cold War nuclear arms race, for example, and the strategic fixation on differences in the number and type of nuclear warheads and delivery systems (the “missile gap”). In the absence of such a metric the two powers have no means of calibrating their activities, and there is no persistent pressure to match or surpass some specific capability the other side maintains.

Intelligence might give each power a rough indication of the other’s cyberwarfare capabilities, but it will be harder to come by than for other military operations. Unlike with other weapons systems, cyberwarfare does not require special installations or resources. There are no centrifuge sites to inspect or uranium shipments to track – just talented programmers and generic computer hardware.

A related issue is that a successful arms control agreement on cyberwarfare would require monitoring and enforcement provisions (“trust but verify”). But as discussed above intelligence on cyberwar capabilities will be harder to come by than for other weapons systems. The Biological Weapons Convention is illustrative of how ineffective an arms control treaty may be without effective monitoring: until a 1989 defection the West was unaware of the scope of Russia’s secret biological weapons program.

Supposing, arguendo, that cyberwarfare capabilities did form an avoidable security dilemma, the negative results that make a security dilemma worth avoiding – excessive expenditures and destabilization – do not arise.

Cyberwarfare is cheap. Developing the F-22 aircraft, for example, cost roughly $65 billion; the annual Air Force cyberspace budget, on the other hand, appears in the low billions and consists primarily of personnel and basing expenditures (Strategic Command Press Release; FY2010 budget).

As for destabilization, there is minimal marginal strategic gain from cyberwarfare capabilities. In the Cold War nuclear arms race there was a perception that if the other side achieved even a slight advantage the bipolar strategic equilibrium would collapse. Cyberwarfare is neither perceived to be – nor is it, in actuality – so effective on the margin. While specific capabilities are not public, it is difficult to imagine cyberattacks will be consistently more effective than conventional strikes. Moreover, given the United States’ enormous strategic advantages in the whole, even significant marginal strategic gains would do little to tip the balance of power to Russia.

Having deconstructed the alleged Russian rationale for talks, the next post in this series will explore alternate viable Russian rationales.