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Moscow shouldn't misjudge the Mueller moment

David Ignatius on

WASHINGTON -- Russian claims this week that they've been exonerated by Robert Mueller's final report make my skin crawl. But they highlight the critical question of how the U.S. and Russia can begin to move back toward a saner relationship.

Frankly speaking (as Russians like to say), the first step is for Russia to stop pretending that it didn't meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Kremlin got caught red-handed, one could say, and if they keep claiming otherwise, they obstruct the dialogue they say they want.

Moscow shouldn't misjudge the moment. The special counsel's report affirmed the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia meddled in the 2016 race. Mueller's strongest cases, in fact, were the indictments that detailed how 13 operatives from Russia's Internet Research Agency manipulated social media and 12 GRU officers hacked Democratic Party information and passed stolen emails to WikiLeaks.

Russian commentators were nearly as jubilant as the White House, after Attorney General William Barr released his summary of Mueller's findings. "Significant taxpayer resources went into disproving an obvious fake," crowed a Foreign Ministry statement. "The agents of conspiracy have been discredited," tweeted Alexey Pushkov, a foreign-policy expert in Russia's parliament.

President Trump may enjoy the Kremlin fist pumps. But they're the wrong way to restart a serious dialogue between Moscow and Washington. A restart won't work unless it's founded on mutual trust between the two nations, as opposed to mutual backscratching by Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Andrey Krutskikh, the Kremlin's leading cyber expert, dropped a hankie in an article this week in the Moscow newspaper Kommersant. He said that "some voices" were re-emerging in the U.S., as opposed to ritual "anti-Russian propaganda." He proposed that the two nations resume "depoliticized expert dialogue" about cybersecurity, like the quiet conversations that took place during the Obama administration.

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"Russia has nothing to fear -- nor do we have anything to conceal," Krutskikh said. He said the U.S. should agree to disclose the secret pre-election contacts between the U.S. and Russia in 2016 about U.S. "concerns over the intrusion into its electronic infrastructure."

This sounds dubious; Russia was conducting a covert action against the U.S., which means that it was deniable. Moscow's statements in 2016 would reinforce its claim that it didn't do what U.S. intelligence and Mueller's indictments say it did.

Chris Painter, who was the Obama administration's top cyber diplomat, told me Wednesday that a resumption of working-level contacts about cyber would be fine. But he cautioned against any top-rank contacts about cyber issues now, because they might allow Russia to pretend the 2016 cyberattacks didn't happen.

"If you resume high-level dialogue, that says everything's OK -- no harm, no foul," explains Painter. This would be a mistake, he argues, because it would allow Moscow "to white wash what has happened." A policymakers' discussion about cyber and other issues "has to have clearly defined goals and outcomes that advance our interests."

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