Winston Churchill famously likened Kremlin power struggles to “a bulldog fight under a carpet. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won.” The metaphor is equally apt today as a description of the conflict raging between America’s intelligence community and Russia’s special services. But, as recent revelations about social media influence activities and mysterious audio attacks on U.S. diplomats suggest, the conflict is increasingly spilling out from under the carpet, without the tacit understandings that once kept our struggles with the old KGB within tolerable bounds.
During the Cold War, unconventional warfare between Soviet and U.S. intelligence took place largely in secret. Each side pursued the war of ideas vigorously, sometimes using disinformation or “black propaganda” to deceive target audiences. Each sought geopolitical advantage in the proxy wars waged in the world’s key regions. Each gathered information that could compromise the other’s military planning and capabilities. Dirty tricks were common, but both Washington and Moscow understood that this grim competition had to remain within reasonable boundaries. Killing the other side’s personnel was unacceptable, for example, in part because such no-holds-barred tactics risked spiraling into broader warfare.
Despite the end of the ideological conflict that fueled so much of the Cold War, this intelligence warfare has intensified. Dashed expectations on both sides for a new partnership have reignited the old rivalry, and new technologies that make espionage and influence operations easier than ever have added gasoline to the flames. Because of the inherent vulnerabilities of computer networks to human error, cyber offense has enormous advantages over cyber defense, which simultaneously incentivizes digital intrusions and reinforces fears on each side that it is vulnerable to attack. Absent the old rules of the game, this conflict is intensifying in ways that could destabilize the bilateral relationship and broader world order.
This is the context in which Americans are seeing video messages from Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman, backed by a political action group that includes former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, solemnly asserting that “we are at war” with Russia and urging that we fight back. The temptation to lash back in anger is natural. The hacks of the Democratic National Committee e-mail servers and the social media messaging campaigns that are now coming to light have shocked the American public and persuaded many that Russia seeks to destroy our democracy. In turn, Moscow sees itself as at least equally aggrieved. From its perspective, the United States has both overtly and covertly aided opposition groups in and around Russia for years, convincing the Kremlin that Washington seeks to encircle and ultimately overthrow the Russian state.
Both conclusions are overdrawn. Aggressive actions by intelligence organizations, which by their nature focus on espionage and influence operations, are dim reflections of broader national-level intent. Those who disagree should consider the fact that Russian cyber warriors have not turned out the lights in key U.S. regions or disrupted trading on Wall Street, actions within their technical capability that would be far more damaging to civil order than publishing e-mails, paying Internet “trolls,” or buying social media advertisements. Just as Russia should not misread U.S. support for gradual democratization as a push for regime change, so too should we be wary of conflating Moscow’s desire to change our international behavior with an intent to destroy our nation.
That does not mean we face no dangers. Americans no longer take the threat of nuclear war with Moscow seriously, believing it to be an outdated Cold War fear made implausible by arms control, confidence-building procedures, and enlightened self-interest. But many of the safety measures put in place in the 70s, 80s and 90s are no longer in effect or are seriously eroding. Although neither side wants a real war, the combination of frayed emotions, societal polarization, ongoing proxy wars, new technologies and a lack of agreed rules of the game may produce one.
The first step toward averting disaster should be exploring a bilateral agreement to refrain from targeting election infrastructure and interfering in electoral campaigns. Russia has long sought such a pledge from Washington, and Russian President Vladimir Putin made a point of calling for mutual noninterference in internal affairs during his first meeting with new U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman. Russia’s sense that it is at least as vulnerable as we are to such interference provides it with a powerful incentive to uphold such an agreement.
We must not rely solely on mutual pledges of restraint, however. We must take urgent steps to improve our defenses against cyber sabotage and influence operations. Within the cyber realm, we should make a concerted effort to patch vulnerabilities, update software and employ malware detection systems. This would make cyberattacks more difficult, even if it would not preclude intrusions by sophisticated operators. Mandating back-up paper balloting for our voting systems would substantially increase our national confidence in the integrity of our electoral infrastructure.
We cannot end the contest between the U.S. and Russian intelligence services, nor should this be our aim were it possible. Our friends and partners seek sensitive information on U.S. plans, intentions, and capabilities, and it would be naïve to suppose that Russia would stop espionage against us even if our relationship were much improved. But we can and should seek to minimize the risks that these activities will sabotage critical infrastructure, injure people, and escalate into dangerous and destabilizing conflict between the world’s most capable nuclear powers. Even in our current state of political polarization, that is a goal that we all should be able to embrace.
George Beebe is the Director of the Intelligence and National Security program at the Center for the National Interest. He formerly served as chief of Russia analysis at the CIA and as special advisor to Vice President Cheney.