Biden delivers a warning to Putin over ransomware attacks

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President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday that his administration would “take any necessary action” to defend the American people and critical U.S. infrastructure in the wake of a massive ransomware attack by Russian cybercriminals.

In a morning phone call, Biden spoke with Putin “about the ongoing ransomware attacks by criminals based in Russia that have impacted the United States and other countries around the world,” according to a readout provided by the White House.

Biden also “underscored the need for Russia to take action to disrupt ransomware groups operating in Russia and emphasized that he is committed to continued engagement on the broader threat posed by ransomware,” the White House said.

The conversation between the foreign counterparts comes as Biden has faced escalating calls this week to retaliate against Russia for the expansive cyberattacks, which most recently targeted IT software management vendor Kaseya.

That hack, disclosed last Friday and suspected to have been perpetrated by the REvil ransomware gang, may have affected as many as 1,500 companies — including a technology vendor that provides services to the Republican National Committee. Other recent high-profile cyberattacks include the digital strikes on Colonial Pipeline and the meatpacking giant JBS in May.

Biden and Putin last spoke at their summit in Geneva three weeks ago, during which the American president warned the Russian dictator against striking 16 key sectors of U.S. infrastructure or harboring cybercriminals who orchestrate the attacks.

“It was important to meet in person so there could be no mistake about or misrepresentations about what I wanted to communicate. I did what I came to do,” Biden said at the time.

Their face-to-face meeting last month was a topic of discussion when Biden and Putin spoke on Friday. According to the White House readout, both leaders “commended the joint work of their respective teams” following the summit “that led to the unanimous renewal of cross-border humanitarian assistance to Syria” in the U.N. Security Council.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended that aspect of the conversation in a briefing on Friday afternoon, arguing it was “consistent with the president’s view that diplomacy includes working together where there is opportunity and agreement, and being clear and candid and forthright when there is disagreement.”

Psaki even promoted the call itself as a small measure of progress. She noted that the recent communication between Biden and Putin “is the first time — even though ransomware attacks have been increasing over the past 18 months, if not longer — that there has been this level of engagement at this level.”

But the press secretary also warned that although U.S. intelligence officials “don’t have additional or new information suggesting the Russian government directed” the recent cyberattacks, “we also know and we also believe that they have a responsibility. They have a responsibility to take action.”

Still, the call between Biden and Putin — which resulted in no direct action by the U.S. — is unlikely to appease Republican lawmakers who have been critical of the president for failing to issue a more forceful response.

The scope of Biden’s retaliatory options is broad, ranging from sanctions against Russian entities to the release of embarrassing information about Putin and his allies.

“While we’re not going to preview operationally what that looks like or what he may decide to do, [Biden] did make clear that he reserves that option to take action,” Psaki said on Friday.

The press secretary declined, however, to say whether Putin offered Biden any assurances that Moscow would crack down on cybercriminals residing in Russia.

“I’m not going to give you a tone and tenor readout here,” Psaki said. “But the president believes — and he’s always believed — that this was going to need to be an ongoing diplomatic engagement with the Russians.”

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