US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry visited Moscow Sept. 11-13 to hold talks with Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Anton Siluanov and Energy Minister Alexander Novak. After discussing a wide range of problems, the parties agreed to restart the dormant US-Russia Energy Working Group to address issues of common interest and disagreements. It was emphasized that the two energy superpowers should maintain their points of contact in order to ensure the stability of the world’s energy markets. That’s good, but the visit also confirmed the fact that intimidation and accusations remain the main foreign policy tools all top US officials keep at the ready.
The secretary reiterated the administration's opposition to the Nord Stream 2 undersea gas project. He confirmed during the press conference that Washington would impose sanctions against the Russian-German pipeline in order to minimize Europe’s dependence on Moscow.
Rick Perry expressed his “disappointment and concern” about “Russia’s continued attempts to infiltrate the American electric grid.” He did not specify precisely what his accusations were based on. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a joint report in March, which said, “Since at least March 2016, Russian government cyber actors… targeted government entities and multiple US critical infrastructure sectors, including the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors.”
The report did not contain meaningful evidence. The conclusions were for the most part unsubstantiated. It offered the opinions of experts but was not convincing enough to be followed by a statement coming from the White House officially blaming Moscow. The paper used the term “infiltration,” not “attack.” Indeed, the accusations boiled down to allegations of evil intent, but not hostile acts, as nothing was destroyed and no one was killed.
A report published a year ago from Symantec, an American cybersecurity firm, warned that Russia could potentially have the ability to cause widespread blackouts across the United States. In May, Cisco’s Talos cyber-intelligence unit said it has high confidence that the Russian government is behind a campaign dubbed VPNFilter, because the hacking software uses the same code as the malware used in previous cyber attacks that the US government has attributed to Moscow. The malware could be used for espionage, interference with internet communications, or destructive attacks against any country. “High confidence,” “could use,” “has the ability to do” — this was the phrasing used in the reports. Similar words they could have used: “maybe,” “perhaps,” and “supposedly.” Neither of them claims that there is irrefutable evidence inexorably leading to the final conclusion that Russia did it, which Rick Perry could use as a basis for his charges.
In July, a group of senators sent a letter to the White House expressing concerns "about Russia's capabilities with respect to cyberattacks on our energy infrastructure." They said the administration was not doing enough to stand up to Russia.
There have been other “leaks” and stories based on “insider information” that have circulated. Rick Perry was the first administration official to officially make an accusation against Russia in a public statement. And he did it during his visit to Moscow.
In reality, due to its centralized system Russia is much more vulnerable to power-grid attacks than the US, with its networks that operate independently and are run by multiple administrators. Dozens of companies provide energy to any big American city or urban area. An attack against a few power stations cannot cause a blackout across a large area, much less across the whole country. It’s impossible. To do that one would have to attack a large, widely dispersed infrastructure — and all segments of it, consisting of hundreds of generating stations, substations, power companies, solar power plants, wind farms, etc. If the system of protection is spotty, which it quite often is, hackers may launch a limited attack without any support from government agencies. There is no one preventing any efforts to enhance the defense of the US power grids. Raising a hue and cry is much easier than doing some real work.
What really matters is that Rick Perry made the accusatory statement claiming that the evidence was plentiful and solid. But neither he nor any other US official has ever produced it. He made his statement on Sept. 13, the same day Assistant Secretary of State Manisha Singh declared that the administration was ready to impose a new and "very severe" round of sanctions against Russia in November if Moscow did not take certain steps in the wake of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Great Britain. Two statements on the same day! The pressure is mounting.
One motivation is the administration’s desire to impose its own sanctions before Congress does. Lawmakers intend to push through their own Russian sanctions bills ASAP. President Trump wants to be one step ahead, in order to demonstrate before the November midterm elections that he doesn’t hold a soft spot for Russia.
The US needs the plug pulled on the Nord Stream 2 project so it can promote its LNG exports to Europe. In July, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker promised the EU would buy more American gas. The US could get many more concessions from the bloc were it not for the lower prices offered by its Russian competitor.
The methods being used are more than reprehensible. The sanctions that have been announced against the companies involved in the project are nothing short of outright intimidation. Washington is twisting the arms of its closest allies in broad daylight. This policy faces widespread opposition in Europe, so the US needs to make it look the other way by painting Moscow as the bad guy. That’s what the Salisbury poisoning, the ruckus about Russia’s alleged “election meddling” in the US and Europe, and the stories about the infiltration of America’s power grids are about. All these fabrications serve one purpose only — to scare Europe into submission and into doing things America’s way. If the administration succeeds, it will look like a big winner in the eyes of the voters during the upcoming November midterm elections. Being tough on Moscow is one way to up the pressure on the EU, thus forcing it to take a step back and let those pursuing the “America First” policy reap the dividends.
Photo: Radio Canada