One of the very first challenges for the Biden administration in foreign and security policy will be how to respond to the massive “SolarWinds” hack of U.S. government systems, most probably (though not yet certainly) carried out by the Russian intelligence services.
President-elect Joe Biden has said that the incident will be “an overwhelming focus for my administration.”
This is a relatively uncharted region of interstate relations, for which it is vitally important to draw up ground rules. Unfortunately, the response to the hack by American officials, politicians, and the media has already done much to blur the facts of the case and make a sensible response more difficult.
The most important thing to remember in this regard is the difference between an “attack” and an act of espionage. The SolarWinds hack has been generally described in the United States as the former (including by incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and Biden), but was in fact the latter. Nobody is suggesting that the hackers in this case introduced viruses to paralyze U.S. state systems or damage domestic infrastructure and services. This was purely an information-gathering exercise.
This distinction is crucial. An attack on the citizens or infrastructure of another state has traditionally been considered an act of war. Actions by the United States, Russia, Israel and other countries in recent decades have somewhat blurred this distinction. But no one can doubt that if another country carried out a major act of sabotage on American soil, (especially one threatening the lives of citizens), then Washington’s response would — rightly — be a ferocious one.
As a matter of fact, while Russia has engaged in limited operations against Estonia and Ukraine, the only countries that have to date carried out a truly successful and destructive act of cyber-sabotage are the U.S. and Israel, through the "Stuxnet” virus, which as introduced into the Iranian nuclear system and first uncovered in 2010.
Espionage by contrast is something that all states do all the time — often to friends as well as adversaries. We may remember the scandal under the Obama administration when U.S. intelligence was found to have hacked into the communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other senior leaders of NATO countries. The hacking of a Belgian telecom company by British intelligence (“Operation Socialist”) is another example. And I would be both shocked and deeply disappointed to learn that U.S. intelligence is not trying to penetrate the state information systems of Russia and China.
And for each revealed act of espionage there is a well-established and calibrated set of responses. The aggrieved country issues a formal protest and expels a given number of “diplomats” from the country responsible. That country expels an equal number of diplomats. The media and the writers of spy thriller writers have a party. Then everything goes back to normal. For after all, everybody knows that there is no chance whatsoever that states will ever give up spying.
There are, however, three aspects of cyber-espionage that make it different from and more dangerous than traditional espionage.
Firstly, as Jake Sullivan has pointed out, unlike most forms of espionage, hacking can be used both for spying and for sabotage, and one can form the basis for the other. A key goal of responsible statecraft should be to establish a clear line between the two when it comes to cyberspace: to develop a set of calibrated and limited responses to cyber-espionage, and to make clear that cyber-sabotage will lead to a much fiercer and more damaging retaliation.
Secondly, unlike traditional espionage, the cyber variety is an area where third parties, uncontrolled by either side, can play a major role and cause serious damage to relations (and of course this also gives all sides plausible deniability — as with U.S. moves against Iran).
For example, those behind the authors of the 2011 cyber-attack on the G20 summit in Paris have never been identified. Several major hacks have been conducted by independent cyber-anarchists, or even by clever teenagers, sometimes it seems simply for fun. In the present atmosphere, however, all such hacks against the United States are likely to be blamed on Russia and to lead to a further deterioration of relations.
Thirdly, and in part because of these blurred lines, no clear and understood international traditions are in place concerning the response to cyber-espionage, and there is a serious risk of overreaction leading to a spiraling escalation of tension and retaliation.
This is what the Biden administration must avoid. Apart from the immediate damage to relations, overreaction would mean that when — as is bound to happen someday — Russia or China eventually discover a cyber-espionage operation against them by U.S. intelligence, they will not only look justified in a disproportionate and escalatory response — they will actually bejustified.
One thing that Biden must definitely not do is to follow the suggestion that the United States should shut Russia out of the SWIFT international bank transfer system which— the most damaging of all U.S. sanctions against Iran, and one that would have a disastrous effect on Russian trade.
Last year, then Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia would regard such a move as equivalent to an act of war and would respond accordingly. Various Russian responses would be possible, including a definitive move into the Chinese geopolitical camp and massive military aid to Iran. Without doubt however, one of them would be to move from cyber-espionage to cyber-sabotage against the United States.
The most sensible response would in fact be to follow literally President-elect Biden’s statement that his administration will “respond in kind” to the attack is the most sensible — that is to say in the cyber-field. The first step (as after any counter-intelligence failure) must obviously be to strengthen U.S. cyber-defenses which. Amongst other things, this requires using presidential orders to combine, streamline, and rationalize the competing plethora of U.S. agencies currently responsible for cyber-security.
The second entirely appropriate response is for Washington to intensify its own existing cyber-intelligence operations against Russia. That, however, is another reason not to engage in overblown moral outrage over the latest hack. The American pot already has quite a global reputation for calling kettles black, and there is no need to blacken it further.
Finally, the Biden administration should do everything possible to develop agreed international restraints on state cyber-operations, including an absolute ban on cyber-sabotage. This should involve opening new negotiations with Moscow on longstanding Russian proposals for an international “arms control” treaty in the area of cyber-warfare, and for a joint U.S.-Russian working group to establish mutual ground rules and confidence building measures.
These Russian proposals cannot be accepted as they stand (above all because of Moscow’s desire to limit free flows of information); however, more than a decade ago, then- National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander said that “I do think that we have to establish the rules, and I think what Russia has put forward is, perhaps, the starting point for international debate.” This remains true today, and the danger of a failure to reach international agreement has grown vastly since then.
One of the worst things about hysterical statements in the United States about "cyber-attacks" is that unwary readers might mistakenly conclude from them that things can't get any worse. They can get much, much worse.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.