Amid Deteriorating U.S.-Russia Relations, Questions Grow About Cyberwar

Oct 4, 2016

Just when you thought U.S.-Russia relations couldn't get worse, diplomatic deals on both Syria and nuclear security fell apart this week.

Moscow went first, announcing that it was pulling out of a landmark agreement on plutonium. Russia's President Vladimir Putin blamed "unfriendly actions" by the United States.

Hours later, Washington said it was breaking off talks on a ceasefire in Syria. "This is not a decision that was taken lightly," State Department spokesman John Kirby wrote in a statement. "Unfortunately, Russia failed to live up to its own commitments."

Moscow and Washington aren't cooperating on much of anything these days. And that prompts a question: What might come next, in the way of cyberattacks?

Russia is suspect-in-chief for recent attacks on targets ranging from the Democratic National Committee to a former U.S. NATO commander to former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Rob Knake, who until last year served as director of cybersecurity policy for the National Security Council, says the toxic atmosphere might open the door to the U.S. retaliating. Until recently, Knake says, "We would say we want Russia's help on Syria. We want Russia's help on nukes. We want Russia's help on North Korea. Now, we've taken at least two of those issues off the table."

His point: if Russia and the U.S. aren't cooperating anyway, there may be less of a downside to hitting back on the cyber front. On the flip side, Knake argues, Russia may also feel less constrained.

"If they don't have an interest in cooperating with the U.S. in Syria, they may feel free to unleash the kind of attacks that they have yet kept on hold," he says. He sees a real risk of tit-for-tat retaliation spiraling out of control.

Angela Stent, who's watched Russia for many years from perches at the National Intelligence Council and now at Georgetown University, takes a different view, though she agrees this marks an exceptionally dangerous period in U.S.-Russia relations.

"This is the lowest point — it's the worst relationship — since, I would say, before Gorbachev came to power," she says, meaning all the way back to the 1980s, before Mikhail Gorbachev took over as the Soviet Union's head of state.

But Stent is not persuaded this low point will translate to gloves-off, bare-knuckle fighting in the cyber arena. That's because Moscow and Washington still share common interests — including Syria, where Russia and the U.S. are still working together to coordinate counterterrorism operations.

Still, Stent says, Russia will not stop trying to provoke the U.S. with cyber intrusions.

"I think the Kremlin concluded some time ago that this was a lame-duck administration," she says. "And that this was the time to get whatever advantages they can. Because they don't know what the next president's going to do."

Meanwhile, President Obama and his advisers continue to avoid publicly naming and blaming Russia. They cite the ongoing FBI-led investigation into recent hacks.

CIA director John Brennan went about as far as any administration official has, in front of a crowd last week at the Washington Ideas Forum.

Asked whether Russia is trying to hack the U.S. election, Brennan replied: "What we do at [the] CIA is to look at a country's capabilities, look at their intent, look at things that they have done in the past, and determine whether something that certainly looks like a duck, smells like a duck and flies like a duck, whether it's a duck or not."

The question now is whether — and how — Washington decides to hunt.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Diplomatic deals on both Syria and nuclear security fell apart between Russia and the U.S. yesterday. Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed unfriendly actions by the U.S. The State Department shot back, saying, quote Russia failed to live up to its own commitments.

Moscow and Washington aren't cooperating on much of anything these days, and this prompts the question of what might be next when it comes to cyber-attacks. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly explains the connection.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Moscow went first, announcing its pulling out of a landmark agreement on plutonium. Hours later, Washington said it's breaking off talks on a ceasefire in Syria. Now neither of those developments has to do with another hotly debated point of friction with Russia - cyber-attacks and what to do about them.

Russia is suspect in chief for attacks on targets from the Democratic Party to a former U.S. NATO commander to Colin Powell. Rob Knake, former director of cybersecurity policy for the National Security Council, says the toxic atmosphere might open the door to the U.S. retaliating. Rob Knake says until recently - like, say, last week...

ROB KNAKE: Where we would say we want Russia's help on Syria; we want Russia's help on nukes; we want Russia's help on North Korea, now we've taken at least two of those issues off the table.

KELLY: The point being if Russia and the U.S. aren't cooperating anyway, there may be less downside to hitting back on the cyber front. On the flip side, Knake says Russia may also feel less constrained.

KNAKE: If they don't have an interest in cooperating with the U.S. and Syria, they may feel free to unleash the kind of attacks that they have yet kept on hold.

KELLY: Knake sees a real risk of tit-for-tat retaliation spiraling out of control. Angela Stent, who's watched Russia for many years from perches at the National Intelligence Council and now at Georgetown University, takes a different view. She agrees this marks an exceptionally dangerous period in U.S.-Russia relations.

ANGELA STENT: This is the lowest point. It's the worst relationship since I would say before Gorbachev came to power.

KELLY: That would be back in the late '80s when Mikhail Gorbachev took over as Russia's head of state. But Stent is not persuaded this low point will translate to gloves-off, bare-knuckle fighting in the cyber arena. That's because Moscow and Washington still share common interests, from space to counterterrorism.

STENT: Don't forget that we still are working with the Russians on de-conflicting our air operations in Syria, for instance.

KELLY: Trying to avoid disaster with U.S. and Russian air forces operating in close proximity. This does not mean, Stent says, that Russia will stop trying to provoke the U.S. with cyber intrusions.

STENT: I think the Kremlin concluded some time ago that this was a lame-duck administration and that this was the time to get whatever advantages they can because they don't know what the next president is going to do.

KELLY: So poke now while you can.

STENT: Yeah, I think so.

KELLY: Meanwhile, President Obama and his advisers continue to avoid publicly naming and blaming Russia, citing the ongoing investigation. CIA Director John Brennan went about as far as any administration official has in front of a crowd last week at the Washington Ideas Forum. Asked whether Russia is trying to hack the U.S. election, Brennan said the CIA tries to look at a country's capabilities, its track record.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BRENNAN: And determine whether something that certainly looks like a duck, smells like a duck and flies like a duck - whether it's a duck or not.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: The question now is whether and how Washington decides to hunt. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.