In cyberspace, conflict is the norm when it comes to nation-states. Russia’s malware shows up on US power grids and its online trolls try to influence elections. Meanwhile, China steals the personal data and intellectual property of leading US corporations. The US, for its part, has its hackers on a war footing.
So it might seem that the prospects for dialogue — in this case, trialogue — are slim. Yet, this is exactly what happened last month in Moscow among a group of former and current officials from China, Russia and the US. The ostensible purpose of the two-day meeting, hosted by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was to explore guidelines for conflicts within and among computer networks.
In the era of US President Donald Trump, this kind of parley has a political edge. The independent investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian hackers during the 2016 US presidential election has hung over the White House since Trump’s inauguration. His own efforts to launch a cybersecurity dialogue with Russia were met with ridicule and shock when he first proposed it in 2017 after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, the organizers of these meetings are not Trump confidantes. Indeed, his supporters would probably call them members of the “deep state.” On the US side they include Sean Kanuck, the former US national intelligence officer for cyberissues, and John Mallery, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Kanuck, who was the director for cyber, space and future conflict for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), said that he and Mallery helped organize the first of these meetings in late 2016 at MIT.
Since then the group has had meetings in China, France, Washington and, most recently, Moscow. An earlier version of these unofficial talks began in the mid-2000s through NATO, but did not include China.
He said that the main topic of the meeting was “cyberstability” — understanding confidence-building measures and the rules of engagement.
“The purpose is to prevent a spiral of escalation in cyberspace,” Kanuck said.
It is something that experts have worried about for years: China steals a piece of naval technology. The US bugs China’s technical universities. China finds out and short-circuits Manhattan’s traffic system. The US responds with cruise missiles fired at Beijing.
National spy agencies have a tacit understanding about diplomatic expulsions, Kanuck said: When the US kicks out four spies, it will judge Russia’s response by how many US agents it expels. A similar arrangement is needed for conflicts in cyberspace.
In this sense, there is an advantage to the less formal diplomacy of these gatherings, which are known in the West as “track 1.5” meetings, because they include current and former officials. Russians prefer the term “meetings with vodka.”
Terminology aside, the conferences have brought together important figures from all three countries.
On the US side last month there was John Costello, who helps direct cybersecurity policy at the US Department of Homeland Security.
Among the Russian delegation was Andrey Krutskikh, a senior Kremlin adviser on cyberissues, who announced in 2017 that Russia was in the process of perfecting an information weapon that would place his country on equal footing with the US.
The Chinese delegation included Chen Zhimin (陳智敏), a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party and a former top official in his country’s cyberspace agency.
One exercise at the meetings was a simulated response to a hypothetical cyberattack.
Kanuck said that he does not read his counterparts the riot act; he knows his interlocutors have intimate knowledge of their own country’s cyberoperations against the West.
Rather, Kanuck said that he wants to learn how China and Russia understand cyberconflict in general.
Nigel Inkster, who worked for British intelligence for more than 30 years and has participated in the conferences, said that the meetings are also useful for more specific knowledge.
“We see how people react to certain things, certain proposals,” he said. “Later at night, after a few drinks and a good dinner, people might be more forthcoming.”
One insight Western participants have gleaned is the different emphases of the US and its rivals.
The US focuses on “protecting the pipes so the Internet remains functional,” Kanuck said.
Meanwhile, Russia and China “are extremely focused on the content that transits those pipes,” he said, adding that they tend to focus on the ability of foreign actors to use the Internet to influence public opinion.
Rafal Rohozinksi, a senior fellow at the IISS, put it like this: “We complain: ‘Why can’t you give us access to or arrest an individual who operates a command-and-control server in Saint Petersburg?’ Russians will say: ‘Why won’t you take down this Chechen-operated Web site that sends information into Russia contrary to our laws?’”
It is a valuable perspective for Americans to know. While analysts in Washington have focused on Russian disinformation and its efforts to influence US politics, their counterparts in Russia believe the West has been doing the same thing to Russia for years.
At the same time, this perspective also reveals the limits to these “meetings with vodka”: They can increase understanding, thereby making conflict more predictable, but this kind of diplomacy cannot end cyberwar.
When or if US officials have a chance to take these talks to the next stage — including vodka, but also people with the authority to change policy — they should be careful not to validate or enable Russian and Chinese censorship.
Everyone wants want cyberpeace in our time, but not at the price of helping authoritarians silence digital dissent.
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