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Cyber détente in Geneva: Can Biden and Putin ease cyber tensions?

Despite the recent cyberattacks on SolarWinds, the Colonial Pipeline, and the meat producer JBS, there is plenty of room for optimism for a cyber deal at the upcoming summit in Geneva between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It could very well slow down – if not bring to an end – the cyber tensions between the two countries.

This content was published on June 15, 2021 - 22:00

The Biden–Putin summit could also turn the page from these protracted hostilities towards a more stable and cooperative global digital policy with the active participation of governments, businesses, and civil society worldwide.

There are three main reasons for this cyber optimism ahead of the summit in Geneva.

First, while the attacks have taken up all the headlines on cyberspace, the two countries have been cooperating on several fronts via multilateral processes. In March, they both endorsed the report of the UN Open-Ended Working Group on CybersecurityExternal link, and just last week, the report of the UN Group of Governmental ExpertsExternal link. Russia and the USA both agreed to develop a more predictable global cybersecurity regime built on 11 norms on how governments should behave in cyberspace and on cooperative measures to address cyberthreats. 

Even at the highly divisive e-commerce negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO), Russia and the USA belong to the same group of countries that are arguing for new e-commerce rules. 

Second, a ‘cyber hotline’ between Washington and Moscow is now open as the two countries directly address recent cyber incidents, according to the White House External linkand Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei RyabkovExternal link.

Third, in the past two months, we have seen a shift both in rhetoric and actions. The animosity between the two countries only grew as the US security apparatus officially attributed External linkthe SolarWinds cyberattacks to the Russian government. President Biden issued an Executive OrderExternal link sanctioning 40 Russian individuals and companiesExternal link over their involvement in the SolarWinds cyberattack. 

But US rhetoric has softened recently. After the Colonial Pipeline attackExternal link in May, Biden emphasised that the attack was launched by a Russian group, rather than by the Russian governmentExternal link. The past few weeks saw a further de-escalation of rhetoric as US officials focused on cooperating with Russian authorities while dealing with the JBS cyberattack. Russia was not mentioned explicitly in what were otherwise tough statements on cybersecurity by US Commerce Secretary Gina RaimondoExternal link, Energy Secretary Jennifer GranholmExternal link, and Transportation Secretary Pete ButtigiegExternal link. From the Russian side, Putin indicated that Russia may extradite cyber-criminals involved in ransomware attacks.

All in all, the stage for a cyber détente between the two countries has been set. In addition to bilateral cooperation, they can also engage into more effective multilateralism by taking the ‘ready-to-use’ confidence-building measures of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) out of the ‘diplomatic fridge’. On a global level, Russia and the USA could accelerate the UN process towards a Cybersecurity Compact that should regulate the current cyber arms race, with at least 50 countries External linkthat already have or are close to having offensive cyber capabilities. The two countries can also strengthen coordination in the fight against cybercrime, currently underway in two separate tracks: (a) the USA-led approach to globalise the ratification of the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, and (b) the Russian-led quest for a new UN cybercrime convention. 

Further along this cyber journey, Russia and the USA should anchor cybersecurity in a wider digital agenda covering e-commerce, human rights, development, standardisation, and other policy issues. For example, e-commerce regulations cannot be effective without addressing standardisation, data, privacy, and security perspectives. The tech sector needs to provide details on cyber components and services to their governments for drawing up a global cyber-harmonised nomenclature system, the basis of the global trading system. Russia will have additional incentives towards developing a holistic approach to global digital policy as it will be hosting the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in 2025, a landmark global gathering that addresses digital issues in a cross-cutting way.

Although there are several reasons to feel optimistic about the Geneva summit, caution is still advised as cyber issues are not – and cannot be – treated in isolation. Cyber issues are a part of a wider agenda between the two countries, ranging from nuclear weapons to the situation in and around Ukraine, relations with China, human rights, the Middle East, and so on. 

For the USA, cyber issues will feature prominently on the Geneva summit agenda. As the US society is highly dependent on digital technologies, cyber stability will increase the security of critical infrastructures domestically and support the economic interests of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and other tech companies internationally. 

While the outcome of the Geneva negotiations will be the result of complex trade-offs, it is certain that fewer cyber tensions and more digital cooperation would be greatly beneficial to the modern world. Through a cyber détente, Biden and Putin can make an important contribution to global cyber stability and overall digital development. 

Many times in history, on the shores of Geneva’s Lake Leman, diplomacy and cooperation prevailed over war and conflict. There’s now reason to hope that history will repeat itself in the cyber realm.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch. 

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