Question: Some time ago the United States proposed fighting the Islamic State terrorist group in south-western Syria. Has the US made any specific proposal to Moscow regarding this? How does Washington intend to fight ISIS in that part of Syria?
Oleg Syromolotov: I would like to remind you that the fundamentals of Russian-US understanding regarding the war on ISIS were put forth in the joint statement adopted by President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam on November 11, 2017. The document said, in part, that Russia and the United States “confirmed their determination to defeat ISIS in Syria” and would continue to cooperate there “until the final defeat of ISIS is achieved.” The presidents also agreed to maintain open military channels of communication between military professionals (de-confliction efforts) to help ensure the safety of both US and Russian forces. Russia and the United States have maintained this cooperation, which has allowed them to effectively prevent dangerous incidents and helped Russia, on the one hand, and the United States and its allies, on the other, to continue fighting ISIS.
As for south-western Syria, a de-escalation zone was established there some time ago, in 2017. The guarantor countries were Russia, Jordan and the United States. It was a breakthrough in the efforts to reduce violence on the ground, introduce a ceasefire and improve humanitarian access to the region. In summer 2018, the zone was eliminated thanks to a successful operation by the Syrian government forces with the support of Russia’s Aerospace Forces. Damascus resumed control of the south-western region, liquidated the terrorist hotbed there, including ISIS units, and restored the status quo in the Golan Heights where the UN peacekeeping force (UNDOF) resumed operations.
The terrorist raids launched by ISIS there have been cut short by the Syrian army, which has sufficient resources for this.
Question: Are counterterrorism consultations between Russia and the United States continuing, or have all such contacts been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic?
Oleg Syromolotov: Over the past few years we have relaunched our counterterrorism cooperation mechanisms with many Western countries, including the key players in this field, in particular the United States. Our dialogue with the United States was resumed at the order of our leaders back in December 2018. I hope to meet my American counterpart, Stephen Biegun, in this format when the international pandemic restrictions are lifted.
The global developments indicate the task of counterterrorism cannot be removed from the agenda, not even because of the pandemic, and hence putting cooperation on hold is out of the question.
Our law enforcement and security services continue to exchange information that can help to thwart potential terrorist attacks. As you know, there are examples of constructive and, most importantly, effective cooperation in this sphere. A good example is the Moscow-Washington partnership during the preparation of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi or the information American security services provided about the potential terrorist attacks in St Petersburg in 2017 and in December 2019, which helped us to prevent terrible tragedies. Our counterterrorism partnership is a two-way street. Here is an example that received much public attention: We alerted our American colleagues to suspicions about the Tsarnaev brothers, who were responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013.
The auxiliary UN bodies – the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee, the 1267/1989/2253 ISIS and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committees plus the 1988 Taliban Sanctions Committee – are a vital platform for interaction with our American colleagues.
Question: The Russian side has stated on several occasions that Russia will certainly be accused of hacker attacks and other things ahead of the US presidential elections. Is Russia still willing to create a joint Russian-US mechanism to discuss these matters? Are we negotiating this issue with the US?
Oleg Syromolotov: As far as the so-called meddling with the US elections is concerned, we regard our overseas partners’ position as untenable.
Moscow and Washington maintain confidential channels of communication to promote a trust-based dialogue and to clarify matters of concern. Specifically, these were very successfully used during the 2016 election campaign. We provided detailed answers to US requests. Back in 2017, we suggested that the details of the correspondence that flowed via the channels be divulged, but the US refused to cooperate, referring to the “sensitive nature” of the information exchange.
Washington invariably fails to respond to our repeated attempts to revive cooperation on this track. Having no expert, depoliticised dialogue between Russia and the US in the field of international information security (IIS) is both self-defeating and dangerous, because in this way we can only aggravate any misunderstandings.
During a recent telephone conversation with his US counterpart Mike Pompeo, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reminded him of the Russian proposal to resume operations of the bilateral group on cyber security. To avoid yet another torrent of accusations to the effect that we are already interfering in the current election campaign, accusations of which we are sick and tired of, we suggested reviving a mechanism empowered to consider any issues of concern to this or that side.
All our proposals on energising the Russian-US IIS dialogue are still on the table. We hope that this time the US side will be guided by rational considerations and will at long last make constructive use of its efforts.
Question: The National Cyber Security Centre in the UK has accused Russia of hacker attacks on UK universities and research organisations working on a coronavirus vaccine. Has the UK come up yet with any proof of this?
Oleg Syromolotov: We must state with regret that this is yet another spiral in the anti-Russian campaign that seeks to accuse our country, without providing any proof, of masterminding cyber attacks against the UK. The same scenario was used in cases involving Georgia and the Czech Republic. Now it seems to be the UK’s turn. Each time we have to deal with increasingly more sophisticated cavils aimed at tarnishing Russia’s image in the world information space.
We think it appropriate to remind all those concerned that under the 2015 consensus-approved report by the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Cyber Security and UN General Assembly Resolution 70/237 that sealed its recommendations, any accusations against states of organising or perpetrating criminal actions must be well grounded.
In the specific case that you are referring to, the UK has sent no official inquiries to Russia. Neither have they provided any intelligible evidence of cyber attacks being launched on British universities and research organisations by Russia or from its territory. We regret that our Western partners are again looking for confirmation of Russia’s involvement to start demonising Russia in the usual highly likely style.
Question: Has the coronavirus pandemic affected cyber security and the ability of the international community to combat cyber terrorism? Do we need any new rules in this area?
Oleg Syromolotov: The coronavirus pandemic has cast a bright light on all countries’ vulnerability to global challenges regardless of their policies or the level of economic development. But as they say, trouble never comes alone. The measures taken by many countries against the coronavirus have strengthened humankind’s total dependence on information and communication technology (ICT). The volume of cybercrime grew dramatically when companies, businesses and government agencies started working remotely. An increase in terrorist activity in cyberspace cannot be ruled out either. Other strategic challenges that have increased in this situation include the risk of interstate confrontation in the digital space, which is difficult to localise due to the cross-border nature of ICT and the interconnection of national economies and lifestyles. All of this could be described as a man-made cyber-pandemic the fight against which is being hindered by large-scale politicization of this matter.
Russia, for its part, has consistently called for developing constructive professional cooperation in the field of information security. It has become especially clear in these times that without universal agreements the world can be plunged into cyberchaos the consequences of which would be truly catastrophic. We insist on the urgent development of rules for every country with standards and principles for responsible behaviour in the information space, as well as a global international convention for combating ICT crime.
It is fundamentally important for all countries without exception plus other concerned parties – business, civil societies and science – to join the search for mutually acceptable formulas against a cyber-pandemic. A truly inclusive discussion on this topic can only be ensured at the only universal organisation, the United Nations. I am referring, in part, to the bodies that have been established at Russia’s initiative, the UN Open-Ended Working Group on developments in ICTs in the context of international security, as well as an open-ended ad hoc intergovernmental committee to elaborate a comprehensive international convention on countering the use of ICTs for criminal purposes. We call on all countries to take a responsible part in the work of these bodies.
Question: Has the pandemic weakened the countries’ ability to counter terrorism? Has it affected the efforts against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist groups?
Oleg Syromolotov: You are aware that the coronavirus, like terrorism, has had a different effect on different countries. But the situation is changing rapidly and often unpredictably. Some countries, including Russia, have taken unprecedented measures to protect their borders and public order, which has actually reduced the likelihood of terrorist attacks. At the same time, developments in some traditionally troubled regions are alarming.
Of special concern in this respect is the situation in some African regions, although it cannot be said that the terrorist threat has subsided in other countries either. For example, terrorist organisations, attempting to gain attention amid the pandemic, have dramatically increased their activities in the Middle East, primarily in Syria and Iraq. The terrorist threat has not subsided in Europe either despite the social isolation rules due to the coronavirus and a ban on public events. The sleeper cells of international terrorist groups in these countries have not been eliminated.
We hope that the coronavirus pandemic will not erode the unity and resolve of the international community to fight terrorism. Of course, counterterrorism is a sphere with many delicate questions, and not all of them can be taken up at open platforms such as videoconferences. However, we continue to maintain all the existing contacts with our international partners, to prepare for important international meetings, including at the UN, and to coordinate new joint moves in this area. Abandoning previous initiatives or negotiation formats is not an option, even though some events have to be postponed. Overall, despite the growing unpredictability due to the pandemic, we continue to work consistently on and will further increase attention to new global challenges and threats. It is our common task to fight ISIS and all other terrorist organisations until their final defeat.