Rebecca Grant: Biden just gave Putin a big, fat cyber bombshell — and China is watching

Biden, Putin hold separate press conferences after closed-door meeting

Retired Gen. H.R. McMaster, formerly Trump National Security Adviser, joins ‘The Story’ with analysis.

No wonder the Geneva summit ended early. There wasn’t much left to say after President Joe Biden delivered the biggest cyber bombshell ever in U.S. foreign policy.

Cut to the chase.  If Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t get the Russian hacking and ransomware cyber-attacks under control, the US can mess with Russia’s oil export pipelines.

Yes, there were strong words on Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iran, Belarus, the Arctic and more. But the historic takeaway from Geneva is that Biden unveiled a direct cyber threat to counter Russia’s recent actions. 

Never before has an American president laid it out so bluntly for Putin. “I pointed out to him we have significant cyber capabilities,” Biden said Wednesday. “He knows it. He doesn’t know exactly, but it’s significant. If they violate basic norms, we will respond in cyber. He knows.” 

For years, America’s cyber strategy was all about getting ready and keeping quiet. 

No longer.  Biden has laid down a scorching red line which Putin and the hackers he harbors must not cross.

Here are the four key points.

As of now, America’s critical infrastructure is off-limits to attack, period.  That means the energy grid, water supply and a total of sixteen specific entities.  Don’t expect much more detail.  The critical infrastructure list has been around awhile but it’s a classified secret. U.S. Army General Paul Nakasone at U.S. Cyber Command is not about to tell you anything about how his cyber-warriors, civilians and military personnel from all service branches, carry out their tasks.

Start with the hackers.  “Responsible countries need to take action against criminals who conduct ransomware activities on their territory,” said Biden.  Russia and hackers paid by Russia hit government agencies, gas pipelines, and meat-packing plants and more in the last few months.  Biden had to act.  Although he originally called the summit to discuss Ukraine, Russia has been flirting with cyber blackmail and that overshadowed everything.

Credit the Trump administration for building up the capability to strike back.  Under guidance issued in 2018, U.S. Cyber Command gathers “unique insights” on enemy networks and “stands ready to act by imposing costs when authorized” which is key to responding.

The U.S. can retaliate, probably against Russia’s oil export mechanisms.  “How would you feel if ransomware took on your pipelines from your oilfields?” Biden asked Putin. Phrased as a hypothetical, this was a very menacing remark.  Mineral fuels and oil make up 42% of Russia’s exports. Russia exports almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia.  Selling oil for the rest of this decade is Putin’s last chance to build up Russia’s tiny economy. 

What about verification? According to Biden, “it’s gonna be real easy.” Russia has three to six months to clean up their act, he said. 

Putin may squirm and deny. Clear attribution has long been a problem with cyber-attacks.  Hackers disguise their activities and attacks route through many different global computer networks – that’s the nature of the internet. 

But after Geneva, Putin risks Russia’s economic future if cyber activity gets out of hand. 

I was glad to see Putin’s top general Valery Gerasimov at the table in Geneva.  Gerasimov has been in charge for all the mischief with Crimea, Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Belarus, etc.  Hearing the clear cyber threat applies across other military domains, too. 

Team Biden used the Geneva meeting to rip the mask off Putin’s shadowy cyber war.  Now they must be ready to back up words with deeds, in cyberspace and beyond. 

And China will be watching. 

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