Biden sets red line for Putin over ransomware attacks

By: AFP      Published: 09:10 AM, 17 Jun, 2021
Biden sets red line for Putin over ransomware attacks
US President Biden shaking hands with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Geneva.

US President Joe Biden delivered a stern warning Wednesday to Russian leader Vladimir Putin over ransomware attacks emanating from Russia, saying he was prepared to retaliate against any more cyber assaults on American infrastructure.

Speaking after the two leaders' first summit in Geneva, Biden said he laid down the line on Moscow not taking action against hackers who have extorted hundreds of millions of dollars from western governments, companies, and organisations from the safety of Russian soil.

"I pointed out to him we have significant cyber capability and he knows it," Biden said in a press conference after their talks.

"He doesn't know exactly what it is, but it's significant. If in fact they violate these basic norms, we will respond."

In a separate press conference following the three-and-a-half hours of discussions, Putin rejected the allegations and insisted that the United States itself was behind a large number of cyberattacks. 

But he acknowledged that the issue was "extremely important" and said the two sides agreed to hold formal consultations on it.

“We need to drop all insinuations, sit down at an expert level and start working in the interests of the US and Russia," Putin said.

- Pipeline, beef producer hacked -

Experts say Russia and neighbouring countries have become the hub of what is called "ransomware-as-a-service," in which different groups work together to hack and then export a target, promising to free up blocked computers after being paid off.

US victims include hospitals, school systems, police departments, and myriad businesses.

Washington officials don't believe the Russian government is directly involved, but say it harbours hackers that should be arrested.

"There is a lot of ransomware activity that is coming from (within) Russian borders, which isn't being conducted by Russian government officials, but is being tolerated by the Russian government," Assistant Attorney General John Demers told a conference held by the Cyberscoop media group on Wednesday.

"They're not just tolerating this; they are actively getting in the way of US law enforcement efforts to combat this type of hacking," Demers said.

The subject was ripe for discussion at the Geneva summit after Russia-based hackers hijacked the computers of a major US oil distribution network, Colonial Pipeline, on May 7 and demanded millions in ransom.

Weeks later, a different group of Russian hackers did the same with JBS, one of the world's biggest meat processors, which paid $11 million in bitcoin to regain control of its IT systems.

Both hacks had significant economic impact in the United States: Colonial was forced to shut down fuel pipelines, forcing gas prices to soar, and beef prices rose as JBS had to curtail production.

Biden has fielded political criticism domestically for not taking any visible action in retaliation, though the US military's Cyber Command declines to make public any actions it takes against adversaries.

The US leader said he delivered to Putin a list of 16 areas of crucial infrastructure like energy and water that are "off limits" to attack, drawing a red line for Moscow.

"I looked at him and said, 'How would you feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields?' He said it would matter," Biden said. 

"Responsible countries need to take action against criminals that conduct ransomware activities on their territory," Biden said.

"Will they act? We'll find out," he added.

No friendship but see path together

There was no talk of gazing into Vladimir Putin's "soul" and the Russian president didn't try to gaslight a rookie US leader.

Instead, Putin's first summit with the fifth US president of his tenure, Joe Biden, was about mutual respect -- and the meeting in Geneva could, both of them said, lead to a more predictable, if still tense, relationship.

In contrast to his predecessors, Biden made no suggestion he expected to reset the relationship and he has already piled pressure on Russia over concerns including alleged election meddling, attacks by cybercriminals against the Colonial Pipeline and other US infrastructure and over the poisoning and jailing of dissident Alexei Navalny.

But after earlier remarks that included calling Putin "a killer," Biden on the eve of the summit described the Russian leader as "a worthy adversary" and at a news conference afterward said that they would see where they had common interests.

Putin, who at his 2018 summit with Donald Trump in Helsinki was widely seen as dominating the reality television star turned president, called Biden "a very experienced politician" who was able to speak in rare detail in the "very constructive" more than three hours of talks.

"Biden generally is someone who wants constructive relations. He doesn't consider Putin a friend," said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group political risk firm.

Similar to his view of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden "doesn't trust them but he does expect Russia will act in its interest and the two countries have some interests that overlap and where we should work together," Bremmer said.

Bremmer said the test of the relationship will come afterward.

"I want to see that in the next three months we have materially fewer ransomware incidents and nothing of the scale that we had against Colonial Pipeline that comes from Russia. That's absolutely critical."

- Groundwork for future -

Putin made no promises at his news conference on cybercrime, appearing to deny Russian involvement, but Biden, signaling that he sent a warning, said that Putin "knows there are consequences" for Russian actions.

The leaders said they would return ambassadors to each other's capitals and that diplomats would work on the release of prisoners.

"I'm not sure how much better it could have gone but it could have gone much worse. This could have been name-calling, posturing, lecturing, talking past each other," said Yuval Weber, a Russia expert at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute and professor at Texas A&M's Bush School of Government and Public Service in Washington.

Unlike in the Cold War, when US and Soviet leaders would come together to sign accords on major issues such as nuclear weapons, Biden and Putin never expected breakthroughs in Geneva, Weber said.

"What they were looking for was whether they can get along well enough in person to keep the conversation going," Weber said.

Weber said that Putin was "notoriously a very thin-skinned person" who was likely unsettled by Biden's initial comments on him.

By calling Putin a "worthy adversary" and speaking of Russia as a powerful nation, Biden is following a strategy of "saying things that Putin can then latch onto," Weber said.

- US partisan divide -

Former president Barack Obama infuriated Putin by calling Russia, which backs separatists in Ukraine, a "regional power" acting "not out of strength but weakness."

But Obama, like previous presidents, took office hoping to restore relations with Russia. George W. Bush famously said after meeting Putin in 2001 that he could "get a sense of his soul."

Trump broke the mould by voicing admiration for Putin. After his 2018 summit in Helsinki, Trump drew criticism even within his own Republican Party when he appeared to take at face value Putin's denial of election interference -- even as Putin also openly said he wanted Trump to be president.

Republicans quickly attacked Biden over the Geneva summit, saying he should have been more confrontational.

"Summits are about delivering results," said Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "To learn there was no tangible progress made with Russia on any issue is both unfortunate and disappointing."

But Senator Bob Menendez, the Democrat who heads the committee, praised Biden for "bluntly speaking truth" to Putin.

"This was a necessary reality check for Putin and a welcome departure from the past four years of Trump's coddling of the Kremlin," Menendez said.