Biden says any response to Russia-based ransomware will be cyber, not military

Following a four-hour summit in a villa in Geneva, the presidents of the United States and Russia gave separate press conferences accounting for the results of the closed-door meetings. 

Cybersecurity and, especially ransomware, placed high on the agenda. The Biden administration has spent weeks identifying ransomware as a key national security priority following high-profile attacks on the Colonial Pipeline and meat producer JBS.

Specifically, the administration has identified these attacks with Russian hacking groups. The U.S. is trying to add pressure on the Russian government to do something about this home-grown industry, going so far as to cast suspicion on Putin as being at least complicit in letting these hackers operate in the Russian Federation. As Biden noted in his conference: "Certain critical infrastructure should be off-limits from cyberattacks. Period. By cyber or any other means."

Speaking to journalists following the summit, Putin also identified cybersecurity as a key area of their conversation, saying: “The cybersecurity space is extraordinarily important throughout the world.” 

Biden went further, saying that "responsible countries need to take action against criminals who conduct ransomware activities on their territory." He said he and Putin had agreed to task experts to "follow-up on specific cases that originate in other countries."

The Russian president, however, denied his government's complicity in recent ransomware attacks. Referring to "American sources," Putin said they found that “the largest number of cyberattacks originate from the US. Second is Canada, then the UK.” He further pointed to an attack on Russian healthcare systems that had come from U.S. cyberspace to which the U.S. government had not responded. 

An example like the SolarWinds hack, suspected of coming from the Russian state, remains a bone of contention. In response to a question from a reporter as to whether Putin was aware of consequences of violating "off-limits" infrastructure, Biden said:

"I pointed out to him that we have significant cyber capability. And he knows it. If they violate these basic norms, we will respond in a cyber way."

Another reporter asked Biden if he and Putin had discussed a possible military response to a ransomware attack. Biden initially brushed the question off, before saying that "we didn't discuss a military response."

Even before the Colonial Pipeline attack, the White House had busily spotlighted Russia's role in cyberattacks. In response to a buildup of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border, Biden's team released a new package of sanctions that banned the purchase of Russian bonds. The sanctions also added 28 crypto wallet addresses to the Office of Foreign Asset Control's blocked list.