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Biden, Putin agree to start new cybersecurity talks and define off-limits targets for cyber attacks

US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Adam Schultz/White House) | Russian President Vladimir Putin during virtual meetings on March 18, 2021. (Kremlin/Released)
June 16, 2021

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded their first face-to-face meeting since Biden took office in January. Following their conversation, both leaders described their talks on how to address cyber-attacks between the two countries.

During his press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Biden described planned U.S.-Russian working groups to address cyber attacks. Biden said he gave Putin “16 specific entities … from our energy sector to our water systems” that he said should be considered critical infrastructure “off-limits” from Russian cyberattacks, adding that he and Putin agreed for U.S. and Russian cybersecurity experts to “work on specific understandings about what is off-limits” for cyberattacks.

Biden said both the U.S. and Russia are suspected of hacks targeting the other country and the U.S. and Russia will work to determine who is responsible and figure out how to stop those hacks. Biden said in a scenario where Russian hackers are suspected, the U.S. will look to the Russian government to determine “they didn’t do it. I don’t think they planned it in this case, and are they going to act.” Biden said the U.S., in turn, will do the same when Russian suspects U.S. hackers. “What can we commit to act in terms of anything affecting, violating international norms that negatively affects Russia? What are we going to agree to do? And so I think we have real opportunities to move.”

Putin also described the plans to establish U.S.-Russian cybersecurity working groups, but defended against allegations cyberattacks are coming primarily from the Russian side.

Putin claimed American sources have reported that “most of the cyberattacks in the world are carried out from the cyber realm of the United States, in second place is Canada, afterwards Latin American countries and then comes Great Britain.” Putin said cyberattacks emanating from Russia are rarer by comparison.

Putin also claimed it had received questions from the U.S. about alleged cyberattacks, to which Russia responded but never received a reply from the U.S.

The meeting between Biden and Putin comes amid increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia in recent years. In March, Biden referred to Putin as a “killer,” to which Putin responded by challenging Biden to a live debate.

Along with cybersecurity, Biden and Putin discussed other issues complication U.S.-Russian relations, including arms control efforts and Russian activity along the Ukrainian border.

Following the summit, the White House released a joint statement by Putin and Biden, which said they are both committed to efforts to extend the New START nuclear treaty between the U.S. and Russia. “Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

“The United States and Russia will embark together on an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future that will be deliberate and robust. Through this Dialogue, we seek to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures,” the joint statement continued.

In a press conference immediately after their meeting, Putin said he and Biden had a constructive conversation and said they also agreed to return ambassadors to their posts in the other’s respective countries, in an effort to reduce tensions between the U.S. and Russia.

Russia withdrew its ambassador to the U.S. after Biden’s March “killer” comments about Putin and the U.S. ambassadors was asked to leave Moscow after Biden announced new sanctions in April against Russia.

The Biden administration’s sanctions came followed a U.S. intelligence community assessment that Russia tried to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election and that Russian groups have been behind several recent cyberattacks targeting the U.S.

Following the summit, Biden described the talks with Putin as “positive” and said they covered three main areas he outlined: identifying areas the U.S. and Russia can work on to advance mutual interests, communicating U.S. intentions to respond to threats, and to clearly express U.S. priorities and values. 

In March and April, tens of thousands of Russian military forces massed on their border with Ukraine, heightening concerns among Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. Putin, addressing that issue, said Russia was acting within its own borders and its actions were lawful and said the U.S. has acted similarly around other international boundaries.