National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said President Biden told Russian President Vladimir Putin there will be consequences if ransomware hackers within his country keep attacking U.S. systems unbridled.
Mr. Sullivan said Thursday that Mr. Biden warned Mr. Putin when they all met this week of repercussions unless he reels in hackers like the ones who recently attacked the Colonial Pipeline Company.
Recalling the meeting on CNN, Mr. Sullivan said Mr. Biden told Mr. Putin the U.S. has “significant” ways of responding “if it turns out that Russia cannot control the criminals operating from its soil.”
“This was not a threat,” stressed Mr. Sullivan. “This was simply an objective statement of what President Biden is prepared to do to protect America’s interests in these specific areas of critical infrastructure. I won’t go into further detail now, but President Biden did clarify to President Putin our capacities and his full willingness to use them if necessary, depending on how things develop.”
The bilateral meeting Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland, marked the first get-together of the U.S. and Russian leaders since Mr. Biden entered office in January. They previously met around a decade earlier.
Colonial, one of the largest suppliers in the U.S. of gasoline, jet fuel and oil, was compromised in early May when it became infected with ransomware made and disrupted by a cybercrime group called DarkSide. The attack disrupted fuel supplies across the U.S. and resulted in the victim paying a ransom to the hackers worth several million dollars. The FBI said most of that was subsequently recovered.
Mr. Biden previously said after the Colonial attack occurred that it was likely Russia in origin, not unlike several other devastating hacks suffered by American victims during the last couple of decades.
DarkSide is not believed to be a state-sponsored actor, however, differentiating the group from the Russian hackers suspected of the SolarWinds attack or breach of Democratic computers in 2016, for example.
Nonetheless, the White House stressed the Kremlin needs to do something about Russian hackers, state-sponsored and otherwise, to curb their attacks targeting critical infrastructure targets in the U.S.
“If criminals from the United States were attacking Russian gas pipelines and President Biden wasn’t doing anything about it, he would expect President Putin to do something, and he was pointing out to President Putin the same thing is true in reverse,” Mr. Sullivan recalled following the summit, which he participated in as the president’s national security adviser.
“So this was not about issuing threats or ultimatums. It was about calmly, clearly and with strength indicating that President Biden is going to take action as necessary to ensure that America’s critical infrastructure and America’s national interests are fully defended and protected,” said Mr. Sullivan.
Washington and Moscow lack any extradition agreement. A cybercriminal in Russia can therefore hack targets in the U.S. without having to worry about being sent there to stand trial, and vice versa.
Mr. Biden said following Wednesday’s meeting that he proposed Mr. Putin agree that several critical infrastructure sector components, such as energy and water systems, be declared “off-limits” to hackers.
Both leaders agreed to task experts from their countries “to work on specific understandings about what’s off-limits,” Mr. Biden said during a solo press conference following Wednesday’s summit in Geneva.
“Responsible countries need to take action against criminals who conduct ransomware activities on their territory,” Mr. Biden told reporters.
Mr. Putin has repeatedly denied Moscow was responsible for cyberattacks suffered by U.S. victims, including as recently as during a solo press conference he gave immediately following Wednesday’s talks.
Addressing reporters after meeting with Mr. Biden, Mr. Putin said Russia faces similar cyberattacks and claimed that many of them are from hackers conducting their operations from the U.S.
“What we need is expert consultations between us,” said Mr. Putin. “We agreed to that in principle, and Russia is prepared for that.”