President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday that the United States will “take any necessary action” to defend critical American infrastructure following a massive ransomware attack by suspected Russian cybercriminals.
But by declining to publicly detail which retaliatory actions — if any — are in the works or under consideration, the administration is likely to add to concerns in Washington that the U.S. is not taking a strong enough approach toward the Kremlin.
Given the top-secret nature of much of America’s cyber capabilities, it is possible the administration may be limited in what it can say for quite some time — a situation that could embolden the president’s Republican critics in Congress.
The proliferation of ransomware attacks is heaping tension on an already spiraling relationship between Washington and Moscow. From Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to a face-off over American citizens detained in Russia, ties between the two countries are largely in tatters.
The ambiguity involved in the latest ransomware attacks has not helped diplomacy. The Biden administration is uncertain if the culprits are controlled by the Kremlin, yet it insists Putin is responsible for stopping the strikes if they are carried out on his soil.
In a call on Friday, 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 president described the call further later Friday afternoon following an executive order signing at the White House.
“I made it very clear to [Putin] that the United States expects when a ransomware operation is coming from his soil, even though it’s not — not — sponsored by the state, we expect them to act if we give them enough information to act on who that is,” Biden said.
He also said his administration and Putin’s government had “set up a means of communication now on a regular basis — to be able to communicate with one another when each of us thinks something is happening in another country that affects the home country.”
“It went well. I’m optimistic,” Biden added. But when asked whether there would be consequences for Russia, the president replied simply: “Yes.”
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 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 financial restrictions against Russian entities to the release of embarrassing information about Putin and his allies.
The administration has already imposed a series of sanctions on Russia over a variety of disputes, but it has also said it wants to work with Moscow on areas of joint interest, including combating climate change.
“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.”
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.