President Joe Biden on Wednesday said he warned his Russian counterpart that the U.S. would use offensive cyber operations in the future unless the Kremlin clamps down on cyber strikes against the U.S., including ransomware attacks and election interference.
“He knows there are consequences,” Biden told reporters in Geneva following his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He knows I will take action.”
Biden later said he pointed out to Putin that the U.S. has “significant cyber capability.”
“He knows it. He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but he knows it’s significant. If in fact they violate these basic norms, we will respond.”
Key context: The remarks are the strongest Biden has made to date about the recent series of digital assaults that have been attributed to the Kremlin or Russia-based criminal networks, including the recent hack of the Colonial Pipeline that threatened to throw the country’s gas market into turmoil.
Lawmakers had called for Biden to get tough with Putin during their summit about the cyberattacks and Moscow’s interference in recent U.S. elections.
Biden said he told Putin that certain areas of “critical infrastructure” should be off-limits for cyberattacks and had provided a list of 16 sectors that should be free of tampering, seemingly a reference to the list composed by the Homeland Security Department’s cyber wing.
“The principle is one thing, it has to be backed up by practice,” Biden said. “Responsible countries need to take action against criminals who conduct ransomware activities on their territory.”
What else they talked about: Biden said the two sides had agreed to task experts in both countries to “work on specific understandings about what’s off-limits, and the follow up on specific cases that originate in other countries in either our countries.”
The comment likely was a reference to an arrangement Putin mentioned in his own press conference about the U.S. and Russia to enter into “consultations” on cybersecurity. Putin went on to blame the U.S. and its allies for carrying out most of the cyberattacks on his country. Biden did not address this accusation.
Where we go from here: Biden struck a realistic tone about whether the meeting between the two countries would yield actual results.
“We’ll find out whether we have a cybersecurity arrangement that begins to bring some order,” the president told reporters. “Because look, the countries that most are likely to be damaged … are the major countries.”
He said he specifically raised the Colonial Pipeline hack with Putin.
“I looked at him, I said: ‘Well how would you feel if ransomware took down the pipelines from your oil fields?’ He said it would matter,” Biden said. “This is not about just our self-interest. This is about our mutual self-interest.”
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