Biden warns Putin to act against ransomware groups

US president says administration could start treating attacks as national security threats

With the starkest warning yet, US president Biden conveyed in a phone call to Putin that the attacks would no longer be treated only as criminal acts, but as national security threats – and could provoke a far more severe response, administration officials said. Video: Reuters

 

US president Joe Biden has warned his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that time is running out for him to rein in the ransomware groups striking the United States.

In Mr Biden’s starkest warning yet, he conveyed in a phone call to Mr Putin that the attacks would no longer be treated only as criminal acts, but as national security threats – and thus may provoke a far more severe response, administration officials said.

It is a rationale that has echoes of the legal justification used by the United States and other nations when they cross inside another country’s borders to attack terrorist groups or drug cartels.

“I made it very clear to him that the United States expects, when a ransomware operation is coming from his soil, even though it’s not sponsored by the state, we expect them to act if we give them enough information to act on who that is,” Mr Biden told reporters.

Later, Mr Biden appeared to specify one of the ways the United States could respond. Asked if it might attack the servers Russian cybercriminals have used to hijack American networks – meaning knock them offline – Mr Biden responded, “Yes,” according to a pool report.

The heightened tension over the ransomware attacks highlights the complexity of a new type of conflict unfolding between the United States and Russia, one in which the well-established rules and understandings of the Cold War no longer apply. Administration officials say Mr Biden is conscious of the need to avoid an escalating series of actions that could damage both nations, but also of maintaining his credibility after repeatedly warning Mr Putin, so far without success.

Mr Biden is under increasing pressure to take action to stem the costly hacks, which threaten critical US infrastructure. After weeks of generic warnings and diplomatic manoeuvring, the phone call on Friday appeared to be a pointed ultimatum.

A senior administration official said any actions would be a mix of clandestine and public. “Some of them will be manifest and visible,” said the official. “Some of them may not be. But we expect that those take place in the days and weeks ahead.” – New York Times