Can Vladimir Putin be charged?


Pavel Sharikov

To person

Pavel Sharikov, PhD. Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for United States and Canada Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Since 2002 he has been working at the Institute for USA and Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, studying the American political system, cybersecurity policy, and Russian-American relations. He has participated in a number of exchange programs with the United States - in 2005 at the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Maryland and in 2008 at George Washington University. In 2009 he defended his dissertation on American cybersecurity policy. From 2015 he gave a number of courses as an adjunct professor at Moscow State University. Most recently, he was a visiting researcher at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, where he investigated mutual allegations between Moscow and Washington regarding election meddling and domestic affairs.

Since 2014, the Russian government has implemented a variety of measures to control the Internet. Russian citizens should only have access to "correct" information. At the same time, the international community should only learn about Russia what the government regards as "reliable" information.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a cybersecurity conference in Moscow in July 2018. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

On September 25, President Putin proposed comprehensive measures in the area of ​​information security to the USA (

It was foreseeable that the US would reject the Russian proposal for a variety of reasons. First, any deal with Russia, regardless of policy area, and even more so when it comes to cybersecurity, is political suicide for Donald Trump. Second, the American political establishment would never believe that Russia would not interfere in the November presidential election, even if one disregards Donald Trump's personal relationship with Vladimir Putin. A Russian commitment not to interfere in the elections is not credible in the USA. Third, Russia expects the US to stop what the Russian authorities see as American interference in Russian domestic politics. First and foremost, it is support for media freedom and critical reporting of the Russian government. The US, in turn, sees this as a violation of freedom of expression.

The Russian proposal for action is the continuation of two decades of efforts to prevent the militarization of the Internet. The history of Russia's international information security policy can be divided into three major periods, each of which was shaped by both Russia's domestic policy and changes in the international environment.

Period 1: late 1990s to mid 2000s. The internet was messy. The USA founded the Internet Corporation on Assigning Names and Numbers (ICANN), an organization seen in Russia as an attempt to dominate cyberspace. As a result, Russia introduced a UN resolution calling for information technology to be used only for peaceful purposes. Since that time, Russia has led international efforts in the field of Internet governance and has been instrumental in establishing a forum at the UN for this debate: the Group of Government Experts (UNGGE).

Period 2: Late 2000s to 2014. The internet became more organized, mainly due to the rise of internet giants. The Russian government became increasingly concerned about the use of social networks and social media for political purposes. The experience of the color revolutions and the Arab Spring led Russia to strengthen state control over the Internet. Even so, the Russian and American positions came a little closer. While Russia was still trying to regulate the internet more, it also signed a number of bilateral (including one with the US) and regional agreements.

Period 3: 2014 to today. Russian-Western relations are at a dead end. It was foreseeable that Russia would take defensive measures against Western influence, as this was seen in Russia as a targeted information operation directed against Russia. The Russian government took a variety of measures to control Internet users, which can be defined as "sovereignty of the Internet". A large part of the policy aimed at creating a sovereign internet is foreign policy, which in turn has been seen as an analogy to the Cold War Iron Curtain. On the one hand, Russian citizens should only have access to "correct" information. The international community should only learn about Russia what Russia regards as "reliable" information ( Russia still rejected the military use of the Internet and managed to form an international coalition to counter the military use of information.

2018 became a major milestone in Russia's efforts in global internet governance. The UN passed two resolutions, one supported by Russia and its allies, and the other tabled by the US and Western democracies. The Russian resolution contained 13 norms for responsible behavior by states in cyberspace. It also created a new forum for further discussions about Internet governance - the so-called Open ended working group . The American resolution extended the UNGGE's mandate. The two organizations have different tasks and do not work in competition with each other, but complement each other. It is clear that adopting global norms for responsible behavior in cyberspace is impossible without a consensus between Russia and the US.

One of Russia's central aspirations is to deny recognition of the existence of cyber weapons. This implies that no country would have the right to self-defense against a cyber attack because this category of weapons is prohibited. Needless to say, many countries, starting with the US, have developed robust cyber military capabilities.

It makes sense that military cyber technologies are kept secret. But it is noticeable that even US cybersecurity strategies are kept secret. The USA has stated several times that Russia is one of the most important American opponents in cyber space.

The American cyber strategy ( explains that opponents are constantly attacking the US cyber infrastructure. The document introduces the term "continuing engagement" ("persistent engagement ") a - a continuous operation" below the threshold of armed conflict. "Such behavior implies that the adversaries do some damage, which is insufficient, however, to provoke a retaliatory strike by the US through military operations.

Russia's stance on rejecting cyber weapons as such implies that the open development of other countries' cyber capabilities will most likely be perceived as an explanation of hostile intentions and, consequently, a source of potential conflict. It is unclear how Russia would react to cyberattacks. Arguments that Russia does not develop its own military cyber capabilities are not credible, especially from the point of view of the US, which constantly accuses Russia of cyber aggression. I believe that it was very unexpected for Russian diplomats that the issues of international information security were linked to allegations of influencing the elections. Prior to these allegations, the US argument of rejecting Russia's genuinely peaceful proposals seemed weak. But now that Russia has taken on the shape of a "cyber aggressor", American criticism sounds much more solid.

After nearly a month of silence, Washington finally responded to Moscow's proposals for an information security deal. Six Russian suspected GRU officers were charged with various cases of hacking. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: "[...] these cyber activities demonstrate a total disregard for public security and international stability. Russia, presenting itself as an advocate of stability in cyberspace, is indeed one of the greatest disruptive factors in the global world Internet. We urge Russia to put an end to its irresponsible behavior "(

And Deputy Attorney General for National Security John Demers said that "this indictment exposes the use of Russia's cyber capabilities to destabilize and interfere with the domestic and economic systems of other countries, providing a cold reminder as to why Russia's proposal goes no further as dishonest rhetoric and cynical and cheap propaganda is "(

President Trump and his administration are clearly unable to seriously discuss cybersecurity relations with Russia. There are many reasons for this, including the domestic political situation. It is clear, however, that cybersecurity problems cannot be resolved without a dialogue between Moscow and Washington. The US would likely be ready to discuss cybersecurity issues with Russia as part of the arms control talks. However, this would require a fundamental change in Russia's position: Russia would have to recognize cyber as a weapon. President Trump's position on arms control also remains rather unclear. While John Bolton was still on the National Security Council, it appeared that the US would withdraw from any arms control treaty that restricted American military power in any way.

Probably the Democrats are more willing to start talking about arms control, including cybersecurity. But the Democrats are unlikely to be able to enter into a non-interference agreement with Russia. There are also many other problems with a cybersecurity deal. First, it is impossible to agree on the subject of the agreement because cyber capabilities are impossible to quantify. Second, it is impossible to verify and ensure compliance with the cybersecurity commitment.

If Democratic Party members build their influence in the White House and Congress after the November elections, it is possible that Russian-US relations will become a little more pragmatic and a little less ideological. Russia's proposal for information security measures is difficult to take seriously; however, it should be noted that Moscow is ready and willing to negotiate and cooperate.

In the area of ​​cybersecurity, a number of small steps seem feasible for Russia and the US.

First, the top Russian and American politicians could make a declaratory statement that they refrain from cyber and / or information attacks on each other.

Second, cyber military capabilities can be assumed to be developed to cause serious damage. This is why it is important to work together to combat, prosecute and investigate cybercrime and non-military cyberattacks. It is imperative to develop a glossary to ensure that diplomats speak the same language.

It is also evident that no cybersecurity deal between Russia and the US is possible without a general improvement in bilateral relations. Russia and the US are adversaries in many ways, so an accidental escalation could lead to catastrophic consequences. Even if an incident occurs in cyberspace, the escalation of conflict in cyberspace will hardly be separable from physical space and the use of kinetic weapons. Confidence-building measures should not be about separating cyberspace from other conflict-prone issues.

Reading tip

Sharikov, Pavel. "Alternative Approaches to Information-Age Dilemmas Drive U.S. and Russian Arguments about Interference in Domestic Political Affairs". (2020). Available at:
The Russia analyzes are jointly published by the Research Center for Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen, the German Society for Eastern European Studies, the German Poland Institute, the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Research and the Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) gGmbH. The bpb publishes them as a licensed edition.