Shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump publicly undercut his own intelligence agencies Monday at a press conference in Helsinki, Russian President Vladimir Putin, perched on the adjacent podium, floated the idea of a joint working group to analyze U.S. claims of Russian election interference.
Or put more simply, Putin, whom U.S. intelligence officials say ordered the Russian attack on the 2016 U.S. presidential election, asked for a hand in determining whether the attack he ordered ever took place.
During his opening remarks, the Russian autocrat appeared exasperated that he had to again deny any knowledge of Russian interference in the 2016 vote. But then he casually suggested the following:
“Any specific material — if such things arise — we are ready to analyze together. For instance, we can analyze them through the joint working group on cybersecurity, the establishment of which we discussed during our previous contacts.”
As ridiculous as the suggestion sounds, it wasn't the first time such a proposal has been made.
Almost a year ago, Trump trumpeted the possibility of creating “an impenetrable cybersecurity unit” in cooperation with Russia.
Hours later, facing major backlash, Trump walked back his suggestion, and nothing was ever heard about the initiative again — until Monday.
According to Putin, Trump is still considering the possibility of granting a country like Russia — which has repeatedly attacked the U.S. and numerous other countries in cyberspace — intimate access to the U.S. intelligence agencies most guarded networks. Former intelligence agents and analysts all agree that such a proposal is almost unworkable and sharing any intelligence with them could be even more destructive to U.S. national security.
“The idea of a joint cybersecurity unit between the United States and Russia is preposterous,” Michael Carpenter, a former top Defense Department official overseeing Russia and Eurasia, told VICE News.
Priscilla Moriuchi, who spent 12 years working in the U.S. intelligence community, was equally forthright.
“Enabling Russia to gain an even greater understanding of U.S. cyber defenses and analytic capabilities would put American citizens and businesses at even greater risk of attack,” she told VICE News.
The suggestion is all the more astonishing given the circumstances: It came just days after the Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, warned that the persistent threat of cyberattacks from Russia was similar to the increased warnings the U.S. received prior to 9/11.
“The warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats said. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
Coats' comments came on the same day that 12 Russian military intelligence officials were indicted in the Mueller probe for hacking the Democratic National Committee.
“Given the indictments that came out last week, that detail in an incredibly compelling way how Russian military intelligence has used cyberwar against the United States, the idea that the U.S. would then seek a more cooperative relationship on cyber after such profound breaches, is quite absurd,” Alina Polyakova, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told VICE News.
There is no indication of when — if ever — such a working group will be established, and the White House did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Russia has for years been among the most aggressive actors in cyberspace. Not only is it implicated in meddling in the U.S. presidential election, it is also accused of interfering in the Brexit referendum and the French presidential election.
The Kremlin has also been linked to numerous high-profile attacks on critical infrastructure in Ukraine, including knocking out the electricity grid for hundreds of thousands of users. Russia has also been publicly blamed for the devastating NotPetya cyberattack that cost billions of dollars worldwide and the Kremlin has also been accused of infiltrating U.S. power grids.
And the threats show no signs of abating. Officials in Ukraine recently warned that Russian hackers were preparing for a major cyberattack, while intelligence officers in the U.K. are preparing for the possibility of an attack against a piece of critical national infrastructure.
So the idea that U.S. intelligence officials would share information with their Russian counterparts seems ludicrous.
“We're supposed to now launch a joint unit to combat such attacks?” Carpenter asks. “The mere suggestion of it is a political ploy by Putin to focus attention away from the 12 Mueller indictments, which squarely point the finger at Russia.”
The suggestion likely remains on the table only because Trump wants to debunk the collusion allegations that have dogged his presidency.
“Trump sees any mention of cyberattacks around the elections as a question about his own legitimacy as president,” Polyakova said. “He always sees it through this lens, he doesn't see the bigger picture, that this was a national security risk and that our country is vulnerable. He always sees it through the lens of politics.”
For Putin, it's unlikely that he really cares whether his officials work with their U.S. counterparts on cybersecurity. More likely he's just looking for an edge.
“Putin does not seek transparency in cyber operations with the United States. He seeks an advantage in what he views as a zero-sum power struggle with the West. A joint cyber-operations working group would grant him that advantage,” Moriuchi said.
Or, as Thomas Rid, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, puts it, the simple truth is that “Putin is trolling here.”
Cover image: US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a meeting in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)