MOSCOW/LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Moscow and Washington are in talks to create a joint cyber security working group, Russia’s RIA news agency reported on Thursday, citing Andrey Krutskikh, a special presidential envoy on cyber security.
“The talks are underway … different proposals are being exchanged, nobody denies the necessity of holding the talks and of having such contacts,” Krutskikh said, according to RIA.
Svetlana Lukash, a Russian official who was at the recent G20 summit of global leaders in Hamburg, said earlier this month that Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump had agreed to discuss cyber security questions, either via the United Nations or as part of a working group.
However, U.S. and European intelligence and security officials told Reuters on Thursday they were not participating in the talks, which they said were confined to mid-level political officials.
One of the officials, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity, said cooperation on cyber security was a “pipe dream” while Russia continues to deny that it hacked last year’s U.S. presidential election, as three U.S. intelligence agencies concluded publicly in January.
On an Air Force One flight home from Europe last weekend, Thomas Bossert, Trump’s top counterterrorism adviser, told reporters it would be premature to suggest the United States would be talking to Russia about a possible cyber security “partnership.”
“A partnership suggests that you’ve reached a place where you believe that you have a trusted relationship and you’ve come to some common agreement on ideals and goals and behaviors,” he said.
“I don’t believe that the United States and Russia have come to that point yet in cyberspace,” Bossert said. “And until we do, we wouldn’t have the conversation about partnership. But we had to have a dialogue, and that’s where we’ll start.”
Trump said earlier this month he had discussed the idea of creating such a group with Putin at the Hamburg summit.
Senior U.S. Republicans greeted the idea with incredulity, saying Moscow could not be trusted, and Trump later appeared to back away, saying in a post on Twitter: “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t.”
Widespread concern and confusion about the possible cyber working group reflects the Trump administration’s struggles to articulate a clear approach to international cyber security issues amid inconsistent statements by the president and ongoing personnel changes.
Chris Painter, a widely respected bureaucrat who led the U.S State Department’s international engagement on cyber security, is leaving his post at the end of the month amid media reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to shutter Painter’s entire office.
Painter is scheduled to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee next week about cyber diplomacy.
White House cyber coordinator Rob Joyce told reporters on Wednesday that no final decision had been made about Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, but said the State Department would continue to play a prominent role in developing cyber norms and brokering international agreements.
“I am confident that Secretary Tillerson is not going to impair cyber security,” Joyce said.
Reporting by Denis Pinchuk, Vladimir Soldatkin, Ayesha Rascoe, Mark Hosenball and Dustin Volz; Editing by Andrew Osborn, John Walcott and Tom Brown