Andrei Krutskikh, the top cyber expert at the Russian foreign ministry, charged in an interview on Monday with the Russian newspaper Kommersant that the United States had allegedly “unleashed cyber aggression against Russia and its allies.” He claimed that Washington was using Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and “the IT Army created by him to carry out computer attacks against our country as a battering ram.”
Krutskikh continued ominously: “We do not recommend that the United States provoke Russia into retaliatory measures. A rebuff will certainly follow. It will be firm and resolute. However, the outcome of this ‘mess’ could be catastrophic, because there will be no winners in a direct cyber clash of states.”
To back up Krutskikh’s claim that the United States has attacked Russian cyber targets, Kommersant cited a June 1 comment by Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, head of U.S. Cyber Command. Speaking about Ukraine during a visit to Estonia, Nakasone told Sky News: “We’ve conducted a series of operations across the full spectrum: offensive, defensive, [and] information operations.”
A Cyber Command spokesman had no comment. A senior State Department official said Krutskikh’s allegations were “nothing new” and a “rehash” of past statements.
The Biden administration, for its part, accused Russia last month of conducting “malicious cyber activity” against Ukraine, including an attack on a commercial satellite communications network that damaged systems in other European countries. The State Department condemned Russia’s cyber-meddling, but the senior official said the United States hasn’t seen the “huge attacks” some were expecting, perhaps because the Russians “don’t want a war on two fronts.”
Krutskikh contended that a “freeze” by the Biden administration in developing a common approach to cybersecurity had reversed progress made last year at the United Nations. U.S. and Russian officials had endorsed a joint U.N. resolution in October outlining a framework for discussing cybersecurity issues. Krutskikh called it a “historic moment.” But at that time, the Russians were already preparing their invasion of Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24. Even so, contact between the two countries on cyber issues has continued, with two meetings since December and another scheduled in July, the senior official said.
The Kremlin’s cyber chief said Monday that Russia was still ready to negotiate “appropriate legal agreements with all states that soberly assess the threat of cyberwarfare.” But that same day, Russia included Michele Markoff, the State Department’s cyber security coordinator and the main channel of contact with Krutskikh, on a new list of sanctions permanently banning travel to Russia.
Russia’s view of the internet is fundamentally different from that of the United States, the senior State Department official said during an interview on Tuesday. Whereas the United States seeks an open, free and interoperable system, Russia wants “an internet with sovereign borders,” where it can suppress speech it doesn’t like.
Russia’s obsession with cyberspace partly reflects Moscow’s view that the United States controls the internet and its governance. A favorite Russian target is a group of experts known as ICANN, which oversees the internet’s system of domain names. ICANN used to operate under a Commerce Department contract but has been fully independent since 2016. On Monday, the group published a compendium of Russia’s attempts to rewrite internet rules, through the United Nations or other international regulatory bodies it seeks to control. From President Vladimir Putin on down, the Russians quoted in the ICANN report resent the United States’ digital dominance.
The U.S.-Russian contest over cyberspace will play out in this September’s election for a new secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union, a U.N. agency that could, in theory, take over internet governance. Two leading candidates are Doreen Bogdan-Martin, an American who currently runs one of the ITU’s bureaus, and Rashid Ismailov, a Russian who has worked in his country’s communications ministry and for Huawei, Nokia and other companies. Watch that space, folks.
The internet confrontation is a microcosm of Russia’s larger standoff with the West. Russia yearns for recognition as a great power and global standard setter. But as the war in Ukraine grinds on, Putin has become ever more prickly, isolated and angry at his foes. He is severing Russia’s connections to the world, even as he seeks to dominate cyberspace. His computer is crashing, and he doesn’t seem to know how to reboot.