The Guardian –Simon Tisdall
A fear of cyber-attack helps explain, though not excuse, Britain’s ill-considered plan to unilaterally increase its nuclear warhead stockpile
Russian president Vladimir Putin attends a concert marking the seventh anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on 18 March. Photograph: Alexey Druzhinin/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images
It had to happen sooner or later. Repeated Russian cyber-attacks, hacks, data thefts and disinformation operations aimed at influencing American elections have finally proved too much for Joe Biden, the US president to bear. Intolerable, too, are what Washington sees as the Kremlin’s malign power-plays in sensitive conflict zones, from Syria and Afghanistan to Ukraine and the Balkans.
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, also stands accused by western countries of waging war on his own people: witness the recent crackdown on opposition activist Alexei Navalny’s pro-democracy supporters. Putin’s regime is widely viewed as irredeemably corrupt. Britain last week dubbed Russia a “hostile state”. The US agrees. The question is, what will Biden do about it?
The answer may become clearer in the next few days. While Biden says he still hopes to maintain cooperation in areas of mutual benefit, the two governments are now on a collision course following last week’s sudden eruption of diplomatic warfare. First came the huge Solar Winds cyber-attack, blamed on Moscow. Now, US intelligence chiefs are publicly accusing Putin in person of conspiring to tip the 2020 election in Donald Trump’s favour.
Biden is said to be particularly incensed by a finding that Putin green-lighted efforts by Russia-linked figures in Ukraine to smear his son, Hunter Biden, and by implication himself. Fabricated corruption allegations were exploited by Trump, who suppressed his own spy agencies’ doubts.
In other words, Biden’s Russia problem just got very personal. Speaking last Tuesday, he let rip. Putin would “pay a price” for his 2016 and 2020 poll meddling, he warned. Asked about the recent poisoning of Navalny and other attacks on regime opponents, he was blunt. Putin was a “killer”, he said.
Moscow reacted with outrage, dramatically recalling its ambassador in what may, however, have been a pre-emptive diplomatic strike. Dmitri Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, accused Biden of trying to wreck bilateral ties, while the foreign ministry warned of an “irreversible deterioration in relations”. Putin’s people appear to be preparing for punitive American action.
Biden must not disappoint them. For years, Putin has got away with murder, literally and figuratively, while Trump looked the other way. The imposition of effective penalties is long overdue, if only to avoid future confrontations and a dangerous descent into open conflict. Self-respect and public expectations demand Biden hit back hard.
But how best to get Putin’s attention? The US has imposed multiple sanctions on Russia, dating back to the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Last Wednesday, it tightened export controls in retaliation for the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2019. Officials were also sanctioned over Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment. None of this has changed Putin’s behaviour.
Biden, advocate of Barack Obama’s failed 2009 Russia “reset”, understands this. Perhaps he can find new ways of applying effective pressure. Perhaps he can induce reluctant allies to get tough. Last week, for example, the US again demanded that Germany halt work on the Nord Stream 2 Baltic pipeline project. Yet in any event, Biden thinks he has an ace up his sleeve.
While additional sanctions are expected this week, officials say the main US effort to punish Putin will comprise potentially devastating, semi-clandestine cyber-attacks targeting Russia’s intelligence agencies, military, and government networks.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, has openly discussed the coming cyber-offensive. “I believe that a set of measures that are understood by the Russians, but may not be visible to the broader world, are likely to be the most effective measures in terms of clarifying … what we are prepared to do,” Sullivan told the New York Times.
This cyber-bombardment may already have begun, hence Russia’s otherwise slightly histrionic reaction to Biden’s remarks. Whether it forces Putin to think again remains to be seen. Sullivan’s gambit, while partly intended to establish red lines over future cyber-combat, may succeed only in proving that none exist – and in provoking escalatory retaliation that draws in other countries.
The lawless realms of rapidly evolving global cyber-warfare technology were identified as a major concern in last week’s UK defence and security review. Unlike nuclear weapons, there are no constraining rules or international treaties. Yet the review warns a big cyber-attack could cause as much damage to critical national infrastructure as an atomic bomb. It could also accidentally trigger a UK nuclear missile launch, according to a 2018 Chatham House report.
This fear of cyber helps explain, though not excuse, Britain’s ill-considered plan to unilaterally increase its nuclear warhead stockpile by 40% and significantly lower the threshold for first use of nuclear weapons. This revised posture, the review states, reflects the threat from “emerging technologies that could have a comparable impact” to a nuclear, chemical or biological weapons attack.
What exactly Boris Johnson’s government means by “emerging technologies” is unclear. But it’s evident that a cyber-attack could now lead, in theory, to a Trident missile strike against those believed responsible.
This is an especially illogical Lewis Carroll rabbit hole for the US and Britain to disappear down. Both pay lip-service to nuclear deterrence and global arms control. Both hypocritically lecture Iran and North Korea about the evils of the bomb. Yet, perversely, both are now expanding their nuclear arsenals in response, in part, to non-nuclear threats such as cyber. Russia, China and other nuclear-armed states will doubtless take note.
Russia’s ceaseless provocations warrant a strong riposte. But by legitimising and escalating the offensive use of cyber-weapons of mass destruction, Biden fuels a global cyber arms race while simultaneously increasing the risk of nuclear conflict.
This may not be the most sensible way to bring Putin to heel.