An obvious proviso for re-admitting Russia to the G-7
WASHINGTON -- As the G-7 gathers this weekend in Biarritz, President Trump has expressed hope for the return of Russia, the missing guest at the table. But any consideration of this issue requires dealing with Trump's least favorite subject -- Russian cybermeddling in U.S. elections.
The stark reality is that the United States is now fighting a low-level cyberwar to combat Kremlin political interference and other malign actions. U.S. Cyber Command launched this "hunt forward" campaign last summer to deter Russian meddling in the 2018 midterm elections. It's part of a broader strategy of "persistent engagement" with adversaries.
If Trump truly wants to invite President Vladimir Putin to the 2020 version of a re-christened G-8, there's an obvious price he should demand from Putin: a verifiable commitment to stop Russia's egregious cyber-interference in the elections of the U.S. and other members of the current G-7.
Trump this week floated the idea of readmitting Russia, which had been expelled from the then-G-8 in 2014 following its invasion of Crimea. "I could certainly see it being the G-8 again," he told reporters before a meeting with President Klaus Iohannis of Romania, "because a lot of the things we talk about have to do with Russia."
That's not a crazy idea. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, maintains a regular secret dialogue with his Russian counterpart. After the latest meeting this week, a Pentagon statement cited "the inherent value of regular communication in order to avoid miscalculation and promote transparency."
Meanwhile, the invisible cyberwar continues, with Cyber Command dispatching teams to work with key allies to identify and expose Russian malware. A senior defense official provided new details of this operation in an interview this week.
The timeline of 2018 election-security effort is intriguing, because it unfolded while Trump was publicly discounting Russian election meddling in 2016. The push began in May 2018, when then-Defense Secretary James Mattis tasked Gen. Paul Nakasone, the newly appointed head of Cyber Command, to work with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to defend the midterm elections.
The "Russia Small Group" was the anodyne name given to the joint task force create by Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, both under Nakasone's command. By government standards, it moved quickly: It was formed in July, got legal operational authority in August, and began deploying forward teams abroad in September and October. Each of the teams was small, and fewer than 50 people were sent abroad in total.
The Pentagon has disclosed three countries where Cyber Command teams were deployed: Ukraine, Montenegro and Macedonia. With permission from these host governments, the teams operated inside their networks to collect malware the Russians had planted on supposedly secure systems. It was a treasure trove, according to the senior defense official.
"What surprised us was how blatant they were," said the senior defense official. "The activity was so pervasive." The forward-deployed teams discovered new pieces of Russian malware, including "rootkits," which can allow an adversary to control a target's computer system without being detected, "tunneling" software that hides communications in public networks, and other dangerous tools.