Putin Wants a Truce in Cyberspace — While Denying Russian Interference

MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Friday proposed a ceasefire with the United States in cyberspace, without recognizing that Russia has used the Internet to meddle in American politics.

Mr Putin made an unusual written statement setting out a four-point plan for a so-called “restart” in US-Russia information security relations. Moscow and Washington, he wrote, should issue “guarantees of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, including the electoral process.”

The United States and Russia should develop a bilateral agreement “to prevent incidents in the information space,” based on the Cold War-era agreements, Putin wrote.

Beyond the conciliatory language, Putin’s statement offered no indication that Moscow was willing to make concessions on cybersecurity issues. Russia continues to deny meddling in American politics and insists that the United States meddle in Russian politics by supporting Putin’s opponents.

“As we have said more than once, there is no basis” for claims that Russia interfered in American elections, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov said in his own statement on Friday. “We advocate a professional and constructive discussion of all existing problems and demands at the negotiating table.”

Russia has already made similar proposals, including when Putin met President Trump in Helsinki, Finland, in 2018. They met with interest from Trump, but were flatly rejected in Washington, where lawmakers asked why the US was working on cybersecurity, with a country that used hacking and online disinformation to interfere in the 2016 election.

This time, less than six weeks before an American presidential election, Putin is calling for a reset that could bring an outspoken critic of the Kremlin – former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. – to the White House. The move appeared to be, at least in part, an attempt to show a friendlier face in response to recent testimony by American officials that Russia had made clandestine efforts to weaken Mr Biden in the presidential race.

“It is possible that they understand in the Kremlin that Biden is likely to win,” said Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research organization affiliated with the Russian government. “You are preparing for a democratic government that could be even tougher than a republican against Russia.”

Christopher A. Wray, the director of the FBI, warned last week that Russia was actively pursuing a disinformation campaign against Mr Biden. And a recent analysis by the CIA found it was likely that Putin would continue to authorize and direct interference operations to increase Mr Trump’s chances of re-election.

“These measures are aimed at building trust between our states and promoting the security and prosperity of our peoples,” said Putin. “They will make an essential contribution to ensuring global peace in the information space.”

Two Russian political analysts with ties to the Kremlin said in interviews on Friday that even if Putin’s proposal was a real attempt to improve relations with Washington, they did not expect it to lead anywhere. Mr Kortunov said Mr Putin had not indicated that he was ready to give a substantial reason in the dispute over meddling in the elections.

“It is obvious that the Kremlin would of course prefer not to argue with Washington regardless of the election result,” said Kortunov, noting the risk of a President Biden trying to impose new sanctions on Russia. “But they want to avoid these challenges without paying a serious price.”

For example, Kortunov said, the Kremlin has made no public effort to contain Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the Russian business magnate accused by the United States of supporting spearhead meddling in the 2016 elections.

Updated

Sept. 25, 2020, 1:27 p.m. ET

On the contrary, Russia’s relationship with the West has only deteriorated further in recent weeks. The unexplained nerve agent attack on Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who is now recovering in Berlin, sparked disgust in European countries like Germany and France – places where Putin could count on a measure of sympathy. And Putin’s support for Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the Belarusian autocrat who launched brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters last month, demonstrated the Kremlin’s hard drive for a post-Soviet sphere of influence at the expense of human rights.

Fyodor Lukyanov, a Moscow foreign policy analyst who advises the Kremlin, said Friday’s cybersecurity proposal underscored that Putin is now in a far more forgiving mood than five years ago at the height of the Ukraine crisis. But he said American distrust of Russia was so deep that he didn’t expect Putin’s proposal to be taken seriously in Washington – and that relations could take another step down if Mr Biden wins the presidency.

A Biden win could certainly bring some strategic advantages to Russia, analysts in Moscow say. They expect Mr Biden to be better suited to renewing the New Start treaty, the nuclear weapons pact that will expire in February. And some believe that a Biden presidency could ease pressure on Iran, a key Russian ally.

However, it is to be expected that Mr Biden will take a much tougher stance than Mr Trump against Russia in Ukraine and on human rights issues. Above all, the dispute over interference in the Russian elections threatens, said Lukyanov.

“There will clearly be people in the Biden government who will blame Russia for the loss in 2016 and transfer their personal harm and vengeance to the relationship,” Lukyanov said. “Nothing good will come of it.”