The Evolving Threats From China and Russia
by Julianna Goldman 
in Bloomberg 

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia is a big fan of his Oura ring — the Finnish smart device that tracks your sleep and activity and synthesizes all the data in an app. His ring stood out to me because Warner has frequently warned about the unchecked power of both Big Tech and China — and about the vulnerability of technology companies to foreign influence.

So the question occurred to me: Does he ever worry that his ring will be hacked? 

Not to worry, the chair of the select committee on intelligence told me. Oura comes off when he goes into the SCIF, a bit of insider Washington jargon that stands for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, where members of Congress hold classified meetings.

Warner and I spoke on the sidelines of last week’s Aspen Security Conference. With the world burning, figuratively and literally, I asked the SCIF regular what the US can do about two big security threats now facing the world: Russia’s aggression and China’s rise.

On Russia, he said, there’s the chance that the war in Ukraine will escalate and NATO will become engaged in a kinetic war. But “the shoe that hasn’t dropped,” he said, is a cyberattack, which “would fall somewhere in that gray area on whether it’s an Article Five violation or not” — that is, requiring a response from NATO. 

I asked him why Russia hasn’t flexed that muscle yet.

Three reasons, he told me. Initially, the Russians thought “they were going to win so quickly, they didn’t want to destroy any Ukrainian systems.” They also “have appropriate respect for how much we could punch back.” And finally, the consequences of cyberwarfare are, perhaps more so than actual warfare, unknowable.

“When you talk about the tools that go outside of single network,” he said, “it’s a worm, once you let it out, you don’t know where it ends up. … It’s not the equivalent of a chemical weapon or a nuclear weapon, but there are tools they’ve not launched, because I think they were interested in knowing what the full repercussions would be.”

And yet, Russia’s reluctance to use its cyberweaponry has surprised both Warner and the intelligence community.

Time may not be on the West’s side. Russian President Vladimir Putin is widely believed to be planning an annexation of Eastern Ukraine. If that’s the case, I asked Warner, what can be done to prevent it and accelerate support to the Ukrainians?

“Part of the challenge is we want them to be successful,” he said. “But that might also push Putin to rasher action.”

Any annexation, he said, would be preceded by a referendum on becoming part of Russia. The intelligence community, Warner said, needs to be clear about “how crooked any Russian plebiscite would be.” The goal would be “to make sure the world will realize that this is a phony election.” The US should publicize how many Ukrainians have been removed from these areas already, he said, and double down on its campaign to expose Russian propaganda. 

The other great threat is the rise of China — not only as a military power, especially regarding Taiwan, but also in cyberspace. The areas of engagement include artificial intelligence, semiconductors, quantum computing and synthetic biology.

“It would be a huge mistake on America’s part if it became a bipolar competition,” he said. “It needs to be this alliance of democracies.” President Joe Biden’s administration, he said, has been thinking that alliances ought to be “more informal.” Warner told me that it “ought to be as big a group as possible.” It could be organized around technologies, he said. 

Warner, a former venture capitalist, used to believe in the importance of bringing China into the international order. But beginning about eight years ago, he said, “90% of every intel session I had was about stealing intellectual property” — even as US firms were making record investments. 

So he started going on the road, getting members of the committee and intelligence offcials to meet with private-sector actors such as university leaders and financial executives. Initially, he said, he couldn’t get anyone at a private-equity fim to take a meeting — “they were making so much money they didn’t want to hear” — but now even they are concerned. He recalled one SCIF session in particular during which several private-equity firms relayed how they had intellectual property stolen or lost money when the Chinese government clamped down on the companies they had invested in. “They all had taken their lumps,” Warner said.

One question is how much the US knows about China’s intentions and capabilities. How does Warner assess the intelligence?

“China is a very hard target,” he said. At the same time, China is telegraphing its technology strategy in a way that previous regimes didn’t, “and that gives us the ability to have a counterstrategy.”

That doesn’t necessarily make it easier. There is “no place in the US government that is supposed to figure out which technology” the US should prioritize in this competition, he said. The director of national intelligence, the CIA, the Commerce Department and the Pentagon all have different ideas, he said. Identifying that priority is part of his goal as chair of the Senate intelligence committee.

“It’s a very interesting, cool area,” Warner said. Even if it does require him to occasionally remove his Oura ring.