- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2021

He’s denying any role, but Russia’s spy chief said Tuesday he was “flattered” that Western intelligence services believe he was able to pull off the massive SolarWinds computer hack of U.S. private and government networks last year.

In an interview with the BBC’s Russian service Tuesday, Sergei Naryshkin, director of the Kremlin’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), denied having a hand in the cyberespionage coup, saying accusations made by the Biden administration and others “read like a bad detective novel.”

Joking that he felt honored that Western intelligence services rated his team’s hacking skills so highly, Mr. Naryshkin said he could not “claim the creative achievements of others as his own.”

Exploiting a security flaw in a widely used commercial software product, the SolarWinds hack first revealed in December eventually compromised nine U.S. federal agency networks and hundreds of private commercial networks as well.

President Biden last month expelled 10 Russian diplomats and imposed new sanctions on Moscow in response to the SolarWinds breach and to suspected meddling by Moscow in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Among the nearly three dozen individuals targeted by the sanctions was Alexei Gromov, a deputy chief of staff in the office of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The SolarWinds incident and the general deterioration of bilateral relations are likely to be prime topics of a planned summit sometime next month between Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin, at a site likely in Europe still being negotiated.

Mr. Naryshkin gave the interview a day before Secretary of State Antony Blinken and veteran Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were set to talk directly for the first time since Mr. Biden took office, meeting Wednesday on the sidelines of a summit on the Arctic in Reykjavik, Iceland.

With the talks likely to prepare the ground for the Biden-Putin meeting, Mr. Blinken stuck largely to talking points Tuesday, repeating again the Biden team’s mantra that “it would be our preference to have a more stable and more predictable relationship with Russia,” but at the same time, “if Russia chooses to take reckless or aggressive actions that target our interests or those of our allies and partners, we’ll respond.”

Mr. Lavrov, in remarks to reporters Monday, suggested Mr. Putin will push for more.

“Our attitude toward the U.S. includes the hope that normalized relations will be based on specific actions rather than words, of which we have heard too many,” he said in remarks reported by The Associated Press. Russian press sources also said that Switzerland has emerged as a possible host for the presidential meeting.

The U.S. has said there are some limited areas in which it may be able to work with Moscow, including issues such as climate change, North Korea, stability in Afghanistan and the need to tamp down violence in the current Israeli-Palestinian clashes. But rising tensions with Ukraine and a recent temporary buildup of Russian troops across the border have sent tensions soaring again in recent weeks.

Mr. Naryshkin is known to be close to Mr. Putin, who worked for the FSB, the Soviet predecessor to Mr. Naryshkin’s agency, before entering politics.

The SVR director offered a sweeping denial of Western accusations about recent Russian behavior, dismissing as absurd charges that the Kremlin was behind the poisoning of Russian dissidents abroad, that it meddled in U.S. and Western election campaigns, or that it carried out government-sponsored cyberespionage on a major scale.

The U.S. intelligence community and Britain’s lead cyber spying unit have both concluded that hackers linked to the Russian government were behind the SolarWinds hack.

 — This article was based in part on wire service reports.

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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