On Friday, September 25th, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed a truce between Russia and the United States —a nonintervention pact with specific regards to cyberspace security and elections. In a statement issued by the Kremlin, Putin alleges “these measures are aimed at building up trust between our states, promoting security and prosperity of our peoples.”
Putin’s sudden and surprising declaration of greater diplomacy between the U.S. and Russia — two states with soured relations since the Cold War — arrives amidst heightened accusations of interference with U.S. elections by Moscow. William R. Evanina, the director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center, has suggested that Russia is seeking to “denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’”
While election interference by China and Iran is also highlighted in Evanina’s public report, the top counterintelligence official describes Russia as the most involved country in attempts to influence the U.S. 2020 presidential election. The New York Times reports Russia is influencing U.S. elections through media disinformation with evidence from Facebook and Twitter. Notably, both media platforms have increased efforts to combat information laundering — the infiltration of false news into the mainstream through uncredited sources — since facing criticism in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. elections.
According to The New York Times, Facebook and Twitter have publicly corroborated reports of a Kremlin-backed group known as the Internet Research Agency repeating its efforts in swaying public opinion from the previous U.S. presidential election. Furthermore, the Microsoft threat intelligence team also claims to have obtained evidence of Russian government hackers targeting at least 200 organizations with ties to the 2020 U.S. election campaigns.
Meanwhile, the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election campaigns, investigated by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller and submitted to Attorney General William Barr on March 22, 2019, are still controversial in 2020. With the planned Supreme Court hearing this Fall and constant reminders of interference during the election cycle, the two-year probe into Russian interference continues to be a heavily debated topic, contributing to Americans’ reflexive political hostility towards Russia. According to the Brookings Institution, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia in 2020 is at its worst since the geopolitical tension of the Cold War.
In response, the Kremlin has denied allegations of Russian interference, addressing warnings from U.S. intelligence as simply “American paranoia.” Mark Galeotti, who studies Russian security services at the University College London, revealed that the Kremlin has minimized “malign activity” following the American outcry from the last election, which included blacklists and sanctions from the U.S. government. Galeotti also argues that the majority of theoretical Russian interference in the 2020 election comes from internet “trolls” with no connections to the Kremlin. However, political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya claims the Kremlin still preferred the reelection of President Donald J. Trump as an “anti-establishment insurgent” who is open to the betterment of the U.S.-Russia relations.
As Putin’s proposal on September 25, 2020 suggests, the Russian President aims to improve ties between Russia and the United States, despite failing to acknowledge interference allegations. Stanovaya states that Putin “wants to make a deal with the U.S. on how to get along in the future.” Likewise, ever since the conclusion of Mueller’s special counsel, President Trump has expressed greater desire to improve the nation’s relationship with Russia. For instance, Trump emphasized his friendliness with Putin in his response to the chemical attack on Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in early September 2020.
Despite President Trump’s positive response to cooperation with the Russian government, issues between Moscow and Washington in 2020 have further soured the two states’ relations, causing heightened aversion in both the American government and people towards Russia.
Pentagon reports of Russian fighter jets buzzing U.S. Navy planes over the Mediterranean in early September and Washington’s latest sanctions against Moscow for alleged campaign interference are just two examples of events fostering tensions. One of the largest fissions in U.S.-Russia relations stemmed from US intelligence accusations of Russian military foul play. These accusations alleged that Russian military intelligence Unit 29155, also known as G.R.U., offered bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan. This CIA assessment was considered “fake news” by President Trump, and the White House has made no move to address the incident after receiving notice in February 2020.
U.S.-Russia cyberspace and military encounters worsening relations makes bilateral cooperation even more important. The New START Treaty — the most recent iteration of the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) Treaty signed by the Nixon Administration with Moscow in 1972 — is due to expire on February 5, 2021 and offers a chance to reinvigorate cooperation and transparency. With the U.S. withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 just after accusing Moscow of deploying an illegal cruise missile, the New Start Treaty is the only remaining arms control agreement between the two greatest nuclear-weapon states. This is an important agreement for Russia and the U.S. to pursue, seeing as the two countries possess 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons.
As the U.S. presidential election comes to a close, U.S.-Russia relations remain complicated, reflecting hostilities derived from the Cold War and new tensions stemming from cyber security concerns. With President Trump and former Vice President Biden representing strong partisan divisions in attitudes towards Russia, the change of power in the 2020 U.S. presidential election may give guidance towards a more comprehensive image of future relations. Consequently, while President Putin had initially proposed a non-interference pact regarding elections and disinformation, the new U.S. presidential administration in January 2021 may introduce novel conflicts or prolong concerns about cyber security within U.S.-Russia relations.