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The U.S. blames Russia for the SolarWinds breach of global computer systems and Russian-based hackers for ransomware attacks. Russia denies it all.
Russia says it has moved tens of thousands of troops closer to the Ukraine border to counter NATO. The West charges intimidation.
Several Western labs say jailed Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a Russian nerve agent. Russia denies it, and has cracked down on Navalny’s network.
President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin come to their summit in Geneva June 16 agreeing on one thing: relations between the two nations are at a low point.
The two leaders are poised to clash over cybersecurity, election interference, Ukraine and human rights. And it’s hard to see how they’ll even begin to resolve those disputes.
While there are some areas where their interests overlap, there are more where they disagree not just on the issues, but on the basic underlying facts.
After the 2016 election, when the U.S. was caught off guard by an expansive Russian-led social-media campaign to aid Donald Trump’s candidacy, the big tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, along with the government and independent research groups, developed ways to spot and shut down foreign-sponsored disinformation accounts. These moves had some success.
Russian efforts to meddle in America’s 2020 elections were less effective. That’s not to say they were absent.
The U.S. National Intelligence Council, offering the consensus view of seven intelligence agencies, concluded in a March 16 report that Putin and the Russian government "conducted influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the U.S."
Darren Linvill, a Clemson University expert on state-sponsored disinformation, and his colleagues tracked Russian activity on Instagram and Twitter. They saw Russian accounts built around interest groups on both ends of the political spectrum, all aimed at strengthening Trump’s hand over the Democratic field.
"On the left, they had accounts that supported Black Lives Matter and women’s rights," Linvill told PolitiFact. "On the right, it was about elections and gun rights. One inauthentic account was My Gunshine State. The basic goal was to coalesce support around Trump on the right, and Bernie Sanders on the left."
Linvill said most of the action took place during the primaries. But as accounts were identified, the social media platforms would shut them down. The Russians, Linvill said, weren’t able to build new accounts with as many followers in time for the general election.
The Russians pivoted to a more "traditional intelligence operation," said Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
"This primarily took the form of a series of Ukraine-related ‘leaks’ in 2020, spread by Russian intelligence proxies and intended to denigrate President Biden," Brooking said. "The effort also seems to have been intended to fuel partisan investigations of Biden by Senate Republicans."
Russian accounts have also spread fear and mistrust of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Linvill said in the face of this, the U.S. needs a carefully crafted response that avoids playing into Putin’s hands.
"For Putin, the real audience in all of this is the Russian people," Linvill said. "He uses the narrative that Russia is the victim, every time the U.S. does anything that attacks the Russian regime. You want to give him as little opportunity as possible for that."
In December 2020, hackers took advantage of a security hole in the SolarWinds software used by hundreds of organizations around the world, including many U.S. government agencies. The full impact remains unclear, but if nothing else, it gave outsiders the opportunity to spy on activities within those agencies.
In April, the Biden administration formally named the Russian Intelligence Service "as the perpetrator of the broad-scope cyber espionage campaign that exploited the SolarWinds Orion platform." The U.S. expelled 10 Russian diplomats and imposed sanctions on Russia’s central bank and other financial institutions.
Putin’s government has denied any role in the breach, calling the accusations "farcical."
In May, a ransomware attack on the fuel delivery firm Colonial Pipeline caused regional gasoline shortages. Biden said he didn’t think the Russian government had a hand in that.
"But we do have strong reason to believe that criminals who did the attack are living in Russia," Biden said May 13.
Information security researcher Tarah Wheeler at the Harvard Kennedy School said that might be too generous to Russia.
"There seems to be little effort by Putin to hide his tolerance of gangs attacking civilian and critical infrastructure," Wheeler said.
A separate attack hit meat processor JBS. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would talk with Putin about taking down this sort of ransomware operation.
So, Biden comes into his meeting both blaming Putin for cyberspying, and seeking his cooperation against cybercriminals.
If there is any place where the competing interests of the U.S. and Russia could lead to actual military conflict, it is Ukraine. Nearly seven years after Russia orchestrated open fighting between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government, and annexed the Crimean peninsula, the situation remains as fragile as ever.
In recent weeks, fighting has broken out along an approximately 250-mile-long line of trenches and outposts that marks the Line of Contact between government and separatist forces in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. Four Ukrainian soldiers have died.
Russia sent 80,000 troops to its western border near Ukraine. In May, the Ukraine government announced an exercise with British troops. The Russian Defense Ministry said May 31 that it was creating 20 new military units in the area, a response, it said, to increased NATO activity.
Just before leaving for Europe, Biden told Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that his country had America’s "unwavering commitment." But nothing has reduced the Russian troop deployments.
"The Western position is, the crisis was caused by Putin’s aggression in Crimea and Ukraine," said Boston University historian Igor Lukes. "Moscow's view is, the crisis is all due to Western interference in Russia’s sphere of influence."
A stalemate, Lukes said, serves Putin’s interest. It keeps Ukraine on edge, and makes it harder for it to move closer to the West.
As long as the U.S. is unable to block Russian support for separatists, about the most that might emerge from the summit is "keeping open strategic communication between the two military superpowers," said professor of international relations Margarita Balmaceda at Seton Hall University.
It could be the best way, she said, to avoid an open hot war.
On Memorial Day, Biden talked about human rights.
"I’ll be meeting with President Putin in a couple of weeks in Geneva, making it clear that we will not stand by and let him abuse those rights," Biden said in Delaware.
Biden could bring up several matters.
Russia opposition politician Alexei Navalny stands out. Now in a Russian prison, Navalny nearly died after being poisoned last year with the same nerve agent used on a former Russian spy and his daughter living in England.
The Kremlin denies any involvement. Putin even suggested to French President Emmanuel Macron, said former U.S. Ambassador William Courtney, that Navalny might have poisoned himself.
Escalating the political pressure on Navalny’s network, a Russian court declared it an extremist movement June 9. This effectively barred its candidates from running in upcoming parliamentary elections.
In February, Biden said Navalny had been targeted.
"Targeted for exposing corruption," Biden said. "He should be released immediately and without condition."
The Kremlin said last September it was "absurd" to blame the Russian government for the poisoning. Putin dismissed an independent report that said Russian agents had tracked Navalny for years, including on the trip when he was poisoned.
"This is an attempt to legitimize the materials provided by American intelligence officers," Putin said Dec. 17, 2021.
Putin has tried to turn the tables on Washington, accusing it of cracking down on legitimate protesters in the breach of the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6.
"Those people had come with political demands," Putin said June 4.
Biden has few cards to play.
"I suspect Biden will frankly express strong condemnations, Putin will firmly deny any wrongdoing, and both will be satisfied that they accomplished as much as could be expected in a relatively brief face-to-face meeting," said Georgetown University political scientist Matthew Kroenig,
There are two areas where Biden and Putin share substantial common ground. Restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that the U.S. and Russia helped negotiate, and reviving regular meetings on strategic nuclear weapons.
The Iran arrangement had limited the country’s nuclear program and opened it to U.N. inspectors. But Trump pulled the United States out of the multination agreement in 2018 and slapped strict economic sanctions on Iran. Since then, Iran has violated more and more terms of the nuclear agreement, stockpiling more highly enriched uranium and firing up more advanced production equipment.
Talks are underway in Vienna to unwind the sanctions and move Iran back into compliance.
"The Russians are not causing problems," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "It’s between the U.S. and Iran."
If the U.S. and Iran come to terms, the deal would move forward.
On strategic arms control talks, the shared ground isn’t quite as broad, but there’s general agreement that talk is good. The immediate goal is to establish regular meetings.
"The U.S. is worried about Russia’s development of ground-based cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles," Kimball said. "The Russians are concerned about America putting assets in space that would threaten them. Neither side, despite the rhetoric, wants to indefinitely pursue an expensive arms race that has no end. It drains the coffers of both and can lead to instability."
For now, both countries have agreed to extend what’s called the New START treaty until 2026. The measure puts limits on the number of nuclear weapons and launchers that each country can have in its arsenal.
Kroenig said it’s easy to see Biden and Putin agreeing to regular strategic stability talks. But he cautions that Russia has developed weapons that don’t fall under the START limits.
"Russia has a large quantity of nonstrategic nuclear weapons — torpedoes, depth charges, mines —and several new types of so-called ‘exotic’ nuclear weapons — a nuclear-armed, submarine drone — not covered in the treaty," Kroenig said. "The Biden administration will likely make an effort to control these weapons, but Russia has few incentives to agree."
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Email exchange, Matthew Kroenig, professor of political science, Georgetown University, June 10, 2021
Interview, Igor Lukes, professor of history, Boston University, April 11, 2021
Interview, Darren Linvill, associate professor, Clemson University College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences, April 10, 2021
Email exchange, Margarita M. Balmaceda, professor, School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University, April 11, 2021
Email exchange, Emerson Brooking, resident senior fellow, Digital Forensic Research Lab, Atlantic Council, April 10, 2021
Email exchange, Alexander Motyl, professor of political science, Rutgers University-Newark, April 10, 2021
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Email exchange, Tarah Wheeler, information security researcher, social scientist and cybersecurity fellow, Harvard Kennedy School, April 11, 2021