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Russian Cyberattacks Present Serious Threat To U.S.

NOEL KING, HOST:

A single ransomware attack linked to cybercriminals in Russia shut down everything from supermarkets in Sweden to kindergartens in New Zealand earlier this month. The FBI linked that attack to cybercriminals in Russia. On Tuesday, the Republican National Committee said it had been targeted by hackers. Investigators in that case say the hackers might work for Russia's foreign intelligence agency. Here's NPR's Lucian Kim from Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Nowadays, Dmitry Peskov gets a lot of questions about Russian cyberattacks, but his answer is almost always the same. Peskov is Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman. On a conference call Wednesday with reporters, he was asked about last week's hack on the Republican National Committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DMITRY PESKOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Once again, he said, we can only repeat that whatever happened, the Russian government had nothing to do with it. Just a couple of days earlier, Peskov also had to field questions about the latest ransomware attack linked to a Russian cybergang called REvil. Not a lot is known about the group, but Irina Borogan, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis, says experts are sure about one thing.

IRINA BOROGAN: One hundred percent, they are Russians or people from the territory of the former Soviet Union. But there is no direct evidence that they're connected with the Russian government.

KIM: Still, Borogan says the Russian authorities are not just tolerating the gang. They are, in effect, protecting it by choosing not to crack down on its operations.

BOROGAN: Russian security services are quite good fighting these hackers, and there's no way to get away for a long time with such kinds of attacks and such kind of ransom, like millions of dollars.

KIM: Massive ransomware attacks this spring on Colonial Pipeline and meat processor JBS have been traced back to Russian cybercriminals. Those attacks set the backdrop for President Biden's first summit with Putin in Geneva last month. After the meeting, Biden said he gave Putin a list of 16 areas of critical infrastructure that should be exempt from cyberattacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Responsible countries need to take action against criminals who conduct ransomware activities on their territory.

KIM: Putin, for his part, said Russia is ready to cooperate on cyber.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russia).

KIM: "We agreed to begin bilateral consultations on cybersecurity," he said, "which is extremely important."

Yet U.S. officials say Russian spies and Russian cybercriminals are continuously hacking into American computer systems. Some analysts say what Putin is aiming at in cyberspace is to force the United States to engage with Russia as an equal.

MARK GALEOTTI: The Kremlin can play the card now of saying, look; if you really want us to crack down on this, you're going to have to talk to us and be nice.

KIM: That's Mark Galeotti, director of the Mayak Intelligence consultancy in London.

GALEOTTI: The Russians are saying, look; of course, we will help you defeat these nasty hackers, but you're going to have to work with us. And that, of course, means working with the FSB, the Federal Security Service, and that's something that is actually very problematic for the West.

KIM: Problematic because the FSB is Putin's most important security agency, and anything you tell them may one day be used against you. For now, Putin has the Biden administration's attention. Since the Geneva summit, the White House says there have been high-level talks on ransomware with more consultations scheduled for next week.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM SCHAUFERT'S "JOURNEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.