Two Russian cybersecurity experts were sentenced to prison in late February for committing undisclosed acts of treason, leading to considerable speculation about whether they were involved in helping the United States investigate Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. The details of the case were kept so secret that only a few facts are absolutely certain, but the timing is certainly suspicious—the two men were arrested just one month after the 2016 presidential election. The secretive treason trial is most significant, however, not for what it tells us about what went on during the 2016 election but instead for what it appears to reveal about the Russian government’s willingness to let cybercriminals call the shots—and its unwillingness to continue even the small amount of cooperation with the United States on fighting cybercrime that it once allowed.
What we do know: Sergei Mikhailov, a former intelligence officer at the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who helped coordinate anti-cybercrime partnerships with Western countries, including the United States, was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Meanwhile, Ruslan Stoyanov, who worked at controversial Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab, received a sentence of 14 years. Both men have maintained their innocence throughout the trial.
The sentences were issued by a Russian military court following a completely closed court proceeding, but one of the defense lawyers revealed to CNN that the two men were being tried for committing treason against Russia on behalf of the United States. It’s possible that they were tried for helping the United States investigate the data breaches directed at the Democratic National Committee servers and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s not a good sign that Russia is going after the few people who were cooperating with the United States on cybersecurity matters in the public and private sectors. The Russia-U.S. relationship on cybercrime fighting was already strained. This won’t help.