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The Kremlin has repeatedly pushed proposals for the United States and Russia to work together to protect elections against hacking attacks. Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin expanded the proposal into a package deal: the two countries would pledge not to interfere in each other’s internal political processes, and they would also restore dialogue, devise a mechanism to prevent cyberattacks, and share information on cybersecurity.
In the past, these suggestions have met with understandable ridicule in Washington circles, and the White House has repeatedly rebuffed them. But here’s a thought: once the smoke clears from the presidential election, the new U.S. administration should consider saying “yes”—not to the whole package but to a noninterference pledge alone.
Is the idea of a noninterference pact a good one? On paper, of course it is. Will Russian leaders do their part in good faith? Of course they won’t. And that is precisely why such a pact just might be worth a try: not because the United States can hope to forge a functional agreement with Moscow but in order to call Putin’s bluff.
Russia’s leaders have their reasons for offering such agreements—and pressing for a cybersecurity deal—despite knowing full well that Washington is highly unlikely to accept. The Kremlin is acting on a deeply held view that it is the aggrieved party, perennially under attack from a stronger adversary to which it has offered nothing but mutual cooperation but from which it has received only betrayal and bullying in return. The view is not entirely without basis in reality—NATO has, in fact, extended to Russia’s borders; the U.S. defense budget does, in fact, exceed Russia’s by several times; and arrogance and double standards have, in fact, marred U.S. efforts to spread democracy abroad—but the Kremlin perception has taken on a decidedly paranoid quality.
Putin views much of the information that lands on his desk through that suspicious lens, which increasingly colors his foreign policy. He is convinced, for instance, that the United States, and not Russia, has been meddling in foreign elections, including in Russia. Russia’s Security Council notes that cyberattacks against Russia have increased 11-fold in the last three years, and rather than understanding them as the work of hackers and fraudsters—an inevitable byproduct of the country’s rapid entry into the digital age—the council frames such incursions as “evidence” of hostile foreign activity.
The United States and Russia are engaged in a war of narratives that has taken a toll on public trust.
And so when Washington, time and time again, ignores Moscow’s offers of cooperation, Russian leaders feel vindicated in the conviction that the United States is a stubborn bully that wants to continue interfering in other countries’ sovereign affairs.
Russia began suggesting a cybersecurity cooperation deal or a noninterference pact in 2017—around the time that the United States first accused Russia of interference in its 2016 election. The offers help Moscow to deny allegations of meddling and deflect blame back onto the United States. Putin’s envoy for information security, Andrei Krutskikh, described Moscow’s reasoning in 2018: “According to American media, the United States has seriously interfered in the affairs of other countries at least 85 times,” he said. “And they have interfered in our political processes too. We are not going to give any unilateral promises or declaration and we especially do not intend to accept the blame for any incidents that Russia is allegedly involved in.”
The proffered agreements allow Russia to assert its grievances and demonstrate Washington’s intransigence. In 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded to a question about interference allegations in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s “Report on the Investigation Into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election” by saying that the United States was refusing to cooperate. “We’ve long offered to cooperate on the basis of those suspicions that can be corroborated by facts. . . . They responded with refusals.”
The vicious cycle of accusations, followed by Russian offers to make a deal, followed by American rejection, reinforces Moscow’s narrative, which then informs its policy. According to the Kremlin, the United States is interfering in Russia’s politics but denying that it is doing so; therefore Russia, too, will interfere and deny. Washington refuses to cooperate with an untrustworthy adversary, and Moscow uses that refusal to justify a narrative that allows it to deflect responsibility.
The United States and its European allies cannot make the Kremlin take responsibility for its actions. But they can make the narrative that the Kremlin is spinning about its place in the world less compelling. Rather than simply ignoring or rejecting Moscow’s offer, the United States should turn the tables, making a counteroffer of its own that Russia can either accept or—more likely—refuse.
With a noninterference pledge, the United States can signal its openness to constructive cooperation.
Mutual cooperation is more important to Moscow than it is to Washington, because the Kremlin seeks to demonstrate parity between the two countries. Yet no country really wants to cooperate on cybersecurity and share information with a partner that hacks its political parties and leaks the data. Under the circumstances, Washington need not commit to any sort of cybersecurity deal with Russia. It should instead zero in on the noninterference pledge, producing a document of its own that clearly delineates what, exactly, political interference really is. The pledge would then commit both Moscow and Washington to refraining from such activity.
A counterproposal of this nature would likely flummox Moscow. The Kremlin has been comfortable making broad, unenforceable statements of intent—but this would be a written document, signed by both parties, pledging to desist from specific actions.
Moscow is likely to balk. It does not want the United States to set the agenda by defining interference, and it will probably object to the exclusion of all the other measures it has been calling for that would put Moscow on seemingly more even footing with the United States. Washington shouldn’t hope for anything more.
By proposing the pact, the United States will have called Putin’s bluff, especially if the Russians choose not to sign the document.
By identifying what, specifically, constitutes unacceptable political interference—for example, hacking political parties’ servers and leaking the contents or using a country’s social media platforms to exploit political division—the pact will undermine the plausible deniability that Russia’s leadership likes to hide behind. That clarity will further impede Russia from muddying the waters and claiming that the United States is “interfering” in Russia. A document that lays out exactly what the United States is asking, and what it is willing to give, will carry far more weight in the global opinion space than U.S. efforts to engage with Russia’s declarative denials or to fact-check and rebut spurious claims about U.S. efforts to “destroy” Russia.
By offering such a pledge to Russia to sign, the United States can signal its openness to constructive cooperation, within clearly defined boundaries and according to transparent rules. Whether or not Moscow accepts the offer, it will no longer be able to complain that Washington is the recalcitrant party. Moreover, refusing to sign such a pact—which was, after all, originally a Russian idea—would look like a tacit admission that Russia does indeed interfere in U.S. political processes.
The United States and Russia are engaged in a war of narratives that has taken a toll on public trust. Americans worry that Russia is undermining their elections. Agreeing to a pact can help disarm a powerful Russian narrative that drives interference in the first place. And while making this offer won’t necessarily stop Russia from doing what it is doing, Moscow will have that much more trouble claiming to be in the right.
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