The Russian government is open to discussions with the United States on a wide range of cybersecurity issues including election hacking and cybercrime, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told the daily Russian political newspaper Kommersant.
Even the question of election hacking “is not a taboo for us, although it had been made extremely tense by the efforts of the Obama team,” Ryabkov said Wednesday. “We are ready to discuss with the Americans the whole range of these questions.” Attempts at dialogues with the Obama administration were met with silence, he said. Having renewed those attempts now with the Trump administration, Ryabkov “expects the response will be more positive.”
“Classical” cybercrime including bank fraud and intellectual property theft is also on the table for discussions and possible cooperation, the foreign minister said.
The prospect of greater Russian government cooperation with the West on issues of cybercrime looms large because the Russian-speaking sphere is a widely seen as the leader in global cybercrime. Due to a confluence of historical events including a highly effective Soviet technical educational system and years of economic depression following the fall of communism, organized cybercrime coalesced and grew in Russia to the point where criminals in other regions of the world now often follow the trends and tactics the Russians come to first.
“They continue today to be the recognized leaders in cybercriminal activity,” Leroy Terrelonge III, a senior researcher at the security firm Flashpoint, told CyberScoop. “I always say, if there’s some high profile cyber incident, the odds are very likely that some Russian speaker was involved either in the infrastructure or directly involved in the act itself.”
The line between organized cybercrime and government is blurred and sometimes plainly crossed in Russia, as was the case when Russian spies worked with the hacker behind the Zeus botnet to collect intelligence on Ukraine and Syria. On the political side of crime, Russia and the United States do not have an extradition treaty, so cooperation on cybercrime is often infinitesimal if it happens at all.
Discussions and cooperation on these issues would be both a drastic shift in the two nations’ working relationship as well as a tectonic change in the cybercrime landscape.
Ryabkov expressed relative optimism about Moscow-Washington relations throughout the interview, citing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow as a reason to hope for a strengthened relationship.
Tillerson himself, however, said U.S. relations with Russia are at a “low point” after the trip. President Trump echoed that sentiment last week, saying the relationship “may be at an all-time low.” Most recently, the tension centers around American strikes against Russia’s Syrian allies after the Assad regime was accused of using chemical weapons that killed over 80 people. The recently icier relationship is stark about-face from the warmth and admiration Trump expressed for Russian President Vladimir Putin during the presidential campaign.
The topic of cybersecurity arose during Tillerson’s recent visit to Moscow. Election hacking came up “briefly,” the secretary of State told the press, but more thorough discussions were put off into the indeterminate future.