December 21, 2021

From the Hotline to the first video call between presidents Biden and Putin

(Updated: March 19, 2022)

Among the most special telecommunication links are those between the presidents of the United States and Russia. The first and most famous one is the Hotline from 1963, but contrary to popular belief it never had red telephone sets, because it started as a teletype link that evolved into a secure e-mail system.

Only in 1990, a separate secure telephone line was established between the Kremlin and the White House, which was integrated into a digital computer network in 2008. This also enables video calls, a capability that was first used by US president Biden and Russian president Putin only two weeks ago, on December 7, 2021.


US president Biden talking to Russian president Putin from
the White House Situation Room, December 7, 2021.
(photo: White House - click to enlarge)


The Biden-Putin video call

The Russian news agency TASS reported that "the video conference was organized via a secure video conference line, designed for communication between world leaders, and used for the first time today" - a memorable moment, but hardly any other news outlet mentioned it.

Maybe that's because the American and the Russian president had already participated in several multilateral video conferences, like for example the G20 summit in Riyadh in November 2020, and therefore this first bilateral video call seemed not that special anymore.

US president Joe Biden attended the virtual meeting from the large conference room in the White House Situation Room, which is in the basement of the West Wing of the White House. Also present were national security adviser Jake Sullivan, secretary of State Antony Blinken and Eric Green, a senior advisor on Russia.


Russian president Putin talking to US president Biden at
his Bocharov Ruchei residence, December 7, 2021.
(photo: Kremlin via EPA - click to enlarge)


Russian president Vladimir Putin conducted the video call from a conference room in Bocharov Ruchei, which is the summer residence of the Russian president in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. In the photos and video released by the Kremlin no aides or other officials were visible.

An interesting little detail is that the security camera in the corner of the room seems to be covered in black plastic, likely to prevent the ordinary security personnel from watching and/or listening to the video call with president Biden:



Another detail is that president Putin seems to have a white button in front of him, probably similar to the call button in the White House which the American president can use to summon assistance. Under Trump this became known as the "Diet Coke Button".

Close-up of the white button in front of president Putin,
next to an ivory Prestige-CB phone made by Telta
(photo: Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)



Start and duration of the video call

A brief snippet broadcast by Russia state television shows that the two leaders offered friendly greetings to each other: "I welcome you, Mr. President," Putin said, but US president Biden seemed to fumble with his microphone, awkwardly waving to his Russian counterpart during the silence.

After a few seconds, Biden leaned forward and pressed a button on the control panel of the video teleconference (VTC) system. This apparently turned his microphone on: "There you go" he said, suddenly audible, chuckling and waving to Putin.


The AMX control panel of the videoconferencing
system in the White House Situation Room


After president Biden expressed his hope for an in-person meeting with the Russian leader in the future, further talks proceeded in private. Biden and Putin spoke to each other for just over two hours, according to the White House from 10:07 a.m. to 12:08 p.m. Eastern Time, or 18:08 to 20:10 Moscow Time.

Putin's foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov described the presidents' video conference as "candid and businesslike," adding that they also exchanged occasional jokes. Biden's national security adviser said the meeting was "useful", the discussion "direct and straightforward" and "There was no finger wagging."

After the video call with Putin, president Biden had a telephone (conference?) call with France's president Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Angela Merkel, the British prime minister Boris Johnson and Italian prime minister Mario Draghi to brief them about the conversation with the Russian president.

Updates:

On December 30, 2021, US president Biden and Russian president Putin had their second conversation within a month. This time it was a 50-minute telephone call, which was requested by Putin and was about the ongoing crisis around Ukraine.

President Biden speaks on the phone to president Putin
from his home near Wilmington, Delaware on December 30, 2021
(photo: AFP/Getty Images - click to enlarge)


On February 12, 2022, Biden and Putin had a phone call of just over an hour again about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. This time, the American president conducted the call from the conference room in Camp David, the presidential country retreat near Thurmont in Maryland:

President Biden having a call with president Putin, February 12, 2022
(photo: White House/Reuters - click to enlarge)



US-Russian communication links

It should be noted that neither the video call, nor the telephone conversations between the presidents of Russia and the United States are conducted through the famous Hotline between Washington and Moscow. This Hotline, which is officially called the Direct Communications Link (DCL), was established to prevent nuclear war and is formally based upon a memorandum between the United States and the Soviet Union from June 20, 1963.

In popular culture the Washington-Moscow Hotline is often called the Red Phone, and therefore many people think it has red telephone sets, but this is false: the Hotline was never a phone line. It was set up as a teletype connection, which in 1988 was upgraded to inlcude facsimile (fax) units. Since 2008 the Hotline is a highly secure computer link over which messages are exchanged by e-mail.



The Washington-Moscow Hotline terminal room at the Pentagon in 2013
(photo: www.army.mil - click to enlarge)


The American president did use a red telephone though, although not for foreign, but for domestic communications. Quick and easy contact between the president and military commanders is of course just as important as contact with the Kremlin, and this was achieved through a secure military telephone network, called the Defense Red Switch Network (DRSN).



The Direct Voice Link (1990)

While president Reagan used to write letters to his Soviet counterparts, his successor George H.W. Bush had his first phone call with general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev already on January 23, 1989, three days after his inauguration. This established the practice of direct calls to the Soviet leadership, which were to prove very productive.*

Therefore, the United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement on June 2, 1990 to set up a "Direct, Secure Telephone Link between Washington and Moscow". This agreement was updated by the memorandum of understanding between the United States and the Russian Federation from October 15, 1999.

The official name of this telepone line is Direct Voice Link (DVL) and it connects the White House with the office of the Russian president, initially via the same satellite link as the Hotline. But while the Hotline is designated for top level crisis communications, the Direct Voice Link can be used for routine matters and the calls are usually scheduled in advance, so interpreters can be present.*


President Obama using his telephone for secure calls in the Oval
Office to talk to Russian president Putin, March 1, 2014.
(White House photo by Pete Souza - click to enlarge)


A Russian integration proposal

From the declassified Presidential Review Directive/NSC 51 by president Clinton's national security advisor Anthony Lake from February 28, 1995, we learn that:
"The Russian government has recently tabled a proposal to upgrade existing government-to-government communications links between Washington and Moscow by installing a secure digital network with voice, data and teleconferencing capabilities. Significantly, the Russian proposal would integrate the existing Direct Communications Link, the secure Direct Voice Link, and the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center communications network in a manner that would permit intergovernmental communications between the U.S. and Russian presidents as well as other government officials; it would also provide the capability to convene conference communications involving Washington, Moscow and "third parties," e.g., other capitals of the Newly Independent States."

In reaction to this proposal, the senior director for Defense Policy of the US National Security Council set up an interagency working group, to "reexamine the purpose, function and overall architecture of direct communications networks between Washington and Moscow."

I haven't found the conclusions of this working group, but given the fact that the different communication systems continued to exist, indicates that at the time the US did not agree to the Russian proposal.



The Direct Secure Communications System (2008)

Eventually, the Russians partly got what they wanted, because on October 30, 2008, an agreement was signed on the establishment of a "direct secure communications system between the United States of America and the Russian Federation".

This agreement supersedes and terminates the earlier agreements and memoranda of understanding about both the Hotline (from 1963, 1971, 1984 and 1988) and the Direct Voice Link (from 1990 and 1999).

The new system consists of "networked equipment and communications circuits and [is] intended for secure emergency and non-emergency communications between the highest leadership of the two countries." To make the system suitably reliable, the "communications circuits shall follow geographically diverse paths" and both countries agreed to equally share the cost of leasing communication circuits that run outside their territory.




According to the agreement it was up to the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) on the American side and the Federal Protective Service (FSO) on the Russian side to "determine the configuration and technical parameters of the communications circuits, as well as the specific types of encryption devices and equipment to be used."

It was also agreed that "the secure communications system shall be reequipped and updated every five years" while it may also be used to transfer classified information, but only up to the level Secret, as the agreement only mentions the classification markings Secret (Russian: Совершенно секретно) and Confidential (Секретно).


Since the new system became operational, probably in the course of 2009, there's one secure network between Washington and Moscow which is used for the e-mail capability of the old Hotline as well as for the direct telephone line between both presidents.

Since 2013 the network is also used for "a direct secure voice communications line between the U.S. Cybersecurity Coordinator and the Russian Deputy Secretary of the Security Council, should there be a need to directly manage a crisis situation arising from an ICT security incident."

And likewise the video call between Biden and Putin must also have been conducted through the Direct Secure Communications System, although it's not clear why it took so long before this capability was first used.


The Head-of-State Network

The new secure communications network between Washington and Moscow has probably been integrated in the Head-of-State (HoS) network which the president of the United States uses to communicate with foreign leaders.

According to the 2009 budget of the White House Communications Agency (WHCA), which is part of DISA, this Head-of-State network was upgraded to an IP network and expanded with "new suites and additional network capacity", a project that was finally completed in the fiscal year 2013.

There's very little information about the Head-of-State network, but we can assume that it includes at least the countries that previously had a bilateral top-level hotline with the White House: Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, India and probably China. Other allied countries are likely also included.




A small room within the White House Situation Room where the president
"can make a head-of-state phonecall from the Situation Room itself"
(screenshot from a White House video)



Head-of-State phone calls

Presidential phone calls to other heads of state are usually prepared by the senior duty officer (SDO) of the White House Situation Room who negotiates date and time with the designated contact in the foreign capital and arranges an interpreter from the Language Service of the State Department.* Subject-matter experts from the National Security Council (NSC) may also listen in to the call.

These phone calls are not recorded, but duty officers in the Situation Room take verbatim notes which are put together in a Memorandum of Conversation (MemCon). An example is this one of the famous last phone call between presidents George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev on December 25, 1991. Nowadays these MemCons are stored on TNet, the internal computer network for the NSC staff.


When the Situation Room has no dedicated link to a particular foreign leader, then the call would be set up through the so-called Signal switchboard, which is staffed by military personnel from the White House Communications Agency.*

The Signal switchboard is also used for all other secure phone calls and thus we see that the IST2-telephone used by presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had separate buttons not only for the Situation Room, but also for the Head-of-State conference calls, the Signal switchboard and its operator for secure calls:




Securing the networks

For obvious reasons there's no information about how the Head-of-State network and the Secure Communications System between the US and Russia are secured. For its own classified IP networks, the US military uses advanced network encryptors, like the TACLANE series made by General Dynamics. These devices are certified by the NSA as Type 1 product that use classified Suite A algorithms to encrypt communications data up to the highest classification level (Top Secret/SCI).

For such an encryption system, however, both parties have to use the same equipment, or at least the same algorithms and that's a problem when it comes to bilateral communications: one country will of course never provide it's best encryption systems to another country. One solution is to use less secret methods, like the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), which is considered one of the best publicly available encryption algorithms.

Responsible not only for securing the Direct Voice Link (DVL), but also for Obama's BlackBerry, was Richard "Dickie" George, who served as technical director of the NSA's Information Assurance Directorate (IAD) from 2003 until his retirement in 2011.


One-time pad

When head-of-state communications should be as secure as possible, then they could use a one-time pad (OTP), which is unbreakable if implemented correctly. Instead of an algorithm, the OTP method uses a completely random key that is as long as the message that has to be encrypted.

In this way both the original Hotline and the communication links of the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center (NRRC) were secured: "The information security devices shall consist of microprocessors that will combine the digital message output with buffered random data read from standard 5 1/4 inch floppy disks" which each party provided to the other through its embassy.


Russian equipment?

In August 2018, several Russian state media came with a somewhat confusing story saying that "a sophisticated scrambler developed by Concern Avtomatika was tested by US specialists and recommended for use in the direct telephone link connecting Washington with Moscow."

Avtomatika and its predecessors have been manufacturing cryptographic equipment for secure top-level telecommunications already since 1930. In 2014 Avtomatika became part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec.



Links and sources

- ABC News: Biden confronts Putin over Ukraine in high-stakes meeting (Dec. 8, 2021)
- TASS: Putin-Biden video conference over (Dec. 7, 2021)
- The New York Times: The White House relies on a secret system for calls with world leaders. (Dec. 7, 2021)
- Bloomberg: Outdated White House Situation Room Getting Needed Overhaul (Oct. 21, 2021)
- Syracuse.com: I listened to dozens of presidential phone calls. Here’s why it’s done (Sept. 25, 2019)
- National Security Archive: The Last Superpower Summits (Jan. 23, 2017)
- CNN Business: 'I made Obama's BlackBerry' (May 22, 2014)
- Michael K. Bohn: Nerve Center. Inside the White House Situation Room, Brassey's Inc, 2003, p. 67-101.

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