US foreign policy prompted Russia to become 'masters' of cyberwarfare, Blackstone's Studzinski says

  • John Studzinski, vice chairman at Blackstone Group, told CNBC that Russia has "astutely" chosen to prioritize investments in cyberdefense over military spending
  • Ties between Russia and the U.S. have plummeted to their lowest level since the Cold War era
  • Russia has been "an employer of asymmetric means of recovering power … and what is more asymmetric than cyberwarfare?" Mark Malloch-Brown, former deputy secretary general of the United Nations, said.

Cyberwarfare is likely to be at the center of geopolitical disputes for a long time to come, strategists told CNBC.

When asked whether ever-improving ties between China, Saudi Arabia and Russia could be detrimental to the U.S. next year, John Studzinski, vice chairman at Blackstone Group, told CNBC: "They are a reaction to the fact that the U.S. has been increasingly passive about managing its own foreign policy."

While China has stepped in to displace the U.S. on the global stage, Russia has "astutely" chosen to prioritize investments in cyberdefense over military spending, according to Studzinski. This had led to Moscow becoming the "masters" of so-called "cyber foreign policy," he added.

Ties between Russia and the U.S. have plummeted to their lowest level since the Cold War era. The relationship breakdown was initially triggered by Russia's annexation of Crimea and alleged part in the destabilization of eastern Ukraine. As a result, Moscow is currently enduring the sharp end of tough international sanctions from Washington.

Bill Hinton | Getty Images

However, more recently, Russia has been accused of meddling in the U.S. presidential election in order to boost Donald Trump's chances of victory. In January, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Russia attempted to tilt the presidential election in favor of Trump.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the allegations "lies" while Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion with Moscow, calling an ongoing investigation a "witch hunt."

'Asymmetric means of recovering power'

Russia has been "an employer of asymmetric means of recovering power … and what is more asymmetric than cyberwarfare?" Mark Malloch-Brown, former deputy secretary general of the United Nations (UN), said in an interview with CNBC.

"The Russians see it as much cheaper than an extra division of tanks (and) the Chinese see it as probably the culminating component of a rising empire's hold on things. So I think cyber is going to be at the center of competition for a long time to come," Malloch-Brown said.

T-72B1 battle tanks take part in military exercises near Murom as part of an operational meeting of the Russian Armed Forces top officials.
Vadim Savitsky | TASS | Getty Images
T-72B1 battle tanks take part in military exercises near Murom as part of an operational meeting of the Russian Armed Forces top officials.

In May, Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the threat of cyber warfare extends well beyond Russia. Other countries, including China, North Korea and Iran, are using cyberspace to target the U.S. and its allies, and will do so in the future, he said.

Iran also is making use of its high-tech capabilities, he said. In 2013, an Iranian hacker intruded into the industrial control system of an American dam. In 2014, there was a data-deletion attack against a U.S.-based casino.

For the full interview watch CNBC's special "The Davos Guide" program. Episode 1 airing on Tues Dec 26 at 23:00 CET and Weds Dec 27 07:30 CET. Episode 2 airing on Weds Dec 27 23:00 CET and Thurs Dec 28 07:30 CET. Episode 3 airing on Thurs Dec 28 at 23:00 CET and Fri Dec 29 at 07:30 CET.