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. China, meanwhile, steals the personal data and intellectual property of leading American corporations. The US, for its part, has its hackers on a war footing.
So it may seem the prospects for dialogue are slim. Yet this is exactly what happened last month in Moscow among former and current officials from China, Russia and the US. The ostensible purpose of the two-day meeting, hosted by the Russian Foreign Ministry, was to explore guidelines for conflicts within and among computer networks.
In the Trump era, this kind of parley has a political edge. The independent investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian hackers during the 2016 election has hung over the White House since President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Trump’s 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.
But 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 cyber issues, and John Mallery, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Kanuck, who recently was the director for cyber, space and future conflict for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told me that he and Mallery helped organize the first of these meetings in late 2016 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The group has since had meetings in China, France, Washington and, most recently, Moscow.
The main topic of the meeting, Kanuck told me, was “cyberstability” -- understanding confidence-building measures and the rules of engagement. “The purpose is to prevent a spiral of escalation in cyberspace,” he said.
It’s something 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. America 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 both current and former officials. Russians prefer the term “meetings with vodka.”
One exercise at the meetings was a simulated response to a hypothetical cyberattack. Kanuck told me he does not read his counterparts the riot act; he knows his interlocutors have intimate knowledge of their own country’s cyber operations against the West. Rather, Kanuck said, he wants to learn how China and Russia understand cyber conflict in general.
Nigel Inkster, who worked for British intelligence for more than 30 years and has participated in the conferences, told me 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. Russia and China, meanwhile, “are extremely focused on the content that transits those pipes.”
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 St. Petersburg?’ Russians will say, ‘Why won’t you take down this Chechen-operated website that sends information into Russia contrary to our laws?’”
It’s a valuable perspective for Americans to know. While analysts in Washington have focused on Russian 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. If US officials have a chance to take these talks to the next stage they should be careful not to validate or enable Russian and Chinese censorship. We all want cyber peace in our time, but not at the price of helping authoritarians silence digital dissent.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. -- Ed.