Fact check: Putin errant on Jan. 6 and cyberattacks

Frank Bajak,
Associated Press

A look at his claims in the news conference that followed his summit with President Joe Biden.

PUTIN: “From American sources, it follows that most of the cyberattacks in the world are carried out from the cyber realm of the United States. Second place is Canada. Then two Latin American countries. Afterward comes Great Britain. Russia is not on the list of countries from where — from the cyber space of which — most of the various cyberattacks are carried out.”

President Joe Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland.

THE FACTS: This portrayal defies the record. Putin did not identify the source of the list he cited. But Russian-based digital malfeasance is well established by U.S. officials and security researchers alike.

While the U.S., Canada and Britain all engage in cyberespionage, the most damaging cyberattacks on record have come either from state-backed Russian hackers or Russian-speaking ransomware criminals who operate with impunity in Russia and allied nations.

In one such attack, the NotPetya virus did more than $10 billion in damage in 2017, hitting companies including shipping giant Maersk, the pharmaceutical company Merck and food company Mondolez.

The cyberattacks that have recently done the most damage are from ransomware sowed and activated by Russian-speaking criminal gangs that enjoy safe harbor in Russia and allied nations.

The global ransomware plague that has caused tens of billions of dollars of damage in the past 18 months — hitting a company, hospital, school or other target about every eight minutes — was a major issue for Biden at the summit.

As well, Russian intelligence operatives famously interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by hacking Democratic email accounts and orchestrating the release of those communications to boost the campaign of Republican Donald Trump and harm his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

Russian military hackers also attacked and briefly shut down portions of Ukraine’s power grid in the winters of 2015 and 2016.

Altogether, the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future estimates there were 65,000 successful ransomware attacks globally in 2020 from all sources.

The May attack on the Colonial Pipeline, which prompted it to cut off fuel supplies to the U.S. East Coast for five days, was the most spectacular in its impact on crucial infrastructure and came after the Biden administration called ransomware a national security threat exceeding cyberespionage

PUTIN, on the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol: “People came to the U.S. Congress with political demands after the election. Over 400 people have criminal cases opened against them, they’re facing prison terms of 20, or maybe even up to 25 years. They’re being called domestic terrorists and accused of a range of other crimes. Seventy of them were immediately after these events, and only 30 of them are still under arrest, unclear on what grounds.”

THE FACTS: His suggestion that dozens of Jan. 6 insurrectionists were arrested and quietly imprisoned for political speech with unclear legal grounds is incorrect.

More than 480 people have been arrested in connection with the attack, mostly on federal charges ranging from unlawfully entering the Capitol to conspiracy. They include more than three dozen members and associates of right-wing extremist groups, like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.

Each of the suspects charged by the Justice Department was arrested based on a criminal complaint signed by a federal judge — which requires investigators to prove they have probable cause the person committed a federal crime — or an indictment handed down by a grand jury.

The cases have attracted media attention, prosecutors have highlighted many of the arrests with press releases and court records in the U.S. are generally public. The Justice Department also set up a website to list the cases it brought against suspects in the attack. It contains links to the charging documents against them.

So far, four people charged in the attack have pleaded guilty to federal charges.