PRESIDENT Biden’s Russia strategy was scrutinised even before his arrival in the White House. As the 45th President approaches 100 days in office, tensions remain high between the two nations.
Dialogue between the Biden and his counterpart in Moscow has been characterised by discussion over nuclear arms and the extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).
However, less attention has been paid to the threat of Russia’s hostile cyber activity in spite of the major cyber security breach of SolarWinds in December which left the private information of 200 companies and up to 18,000 customers compromised in what is suspected to be a Russian cyber attack.
Sneha Dawda, a cyber security research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, believes that cyber should be top of Biden’s list when it comes to policy with Russia.
They told Redaction Politics: “Cyber security and defence should be a central component of any strategy with any actor.
“Not because of the cyber warfare, but because of the strategic position of the US and increasing shift towards building a digitalised approach.
“There is an inherent need to integrate cyber into a kind of overall foreign policy narrative, because it has such a high prevalence in our domestic lives and our citizens.”
Dawda also believes that the biggest threat faced by the West is not from Russia’s cyber attacks, but from Russia’s plans to create its own “splinternet”, partitioning Russia’s infrastructure internet away from the rest of the internet, similar to that seen in China.
“This infrastructure is increasingly difficult to penetrate and that’s where the capability issue comes in,” she said.
“We’re operating on a model that was thought up in the seventies of this idea of an open and free network, but that’s not the model that the Chinese or Russians want to go for.
“They want to go for control [and] censorship. They want a different type of platform – and that inherently puts barriers up.”
One of the risks that Biden will face during his presidency is not Russia’s aggressive cyber activity as one may think, but instead fall on the lack of ‘cyber hygiene’ and cyber literacy among the population, Dawda argued.
What little strategy we have seen has been promising thus far from an American standpoint, however. One of his first acts in office has been to reinstate the cyber-focused policy groups that Trump previously removed during his term.
Although it is hoped that this will improve the US’s cyber capabilities there are concerns that simple investment in the issue is not enough, and that more cohesive strategy will be required for the US to build sufficient deterrence against Russia and other hostile actors such as China.
“Russians are very holistic in how they look at [cyber operations]. They talk about information warfare, which is everything from disinformation all way through to aggressive attacks on critical infrastructure”, Mark Galeotti, honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, told Redaction Politics.
“Meanwhile, we in the West have a tendency to silo these things as a whole variety of different things to be dealt with by different institutions and means.”
But Russia might not pose the cyber threat we think it does. According to Galeotti, the West has been responsible for exaggerating the threat posed by Russia’s cyber warfare capabilities.
“I think we dramatically overplay the nature of the risk coming from Russia,” he added.
“You sometimes get the sense that somehow Russia is this dark force behind everything that goes wrong from Brexit to Trump, and that Russia has these huge capabilities such as with cyber that we could not possibly match.”
Although Russia is not insignificant, much of its cyber infrastructure is still in disarray, and irrespective of any risk that we are facing from Russia, Russia is also concerned by the same cyber threats initiated by the West, Galeotti claims.
The issues that the Biden administration will likely face will not manifest as a cyberwar between the US and Russia, but rather much of the same hacks, leaks and security breaches already seen in the US.
The true test for Biden will not be the threat of Russia’s cyber warfare, but rather the continued diplomatic distrust between the two powers.
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