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Fact checking Putin claims about cyberattacks, the Jan. 6 insurrection and Navalny

Biden and Putin sit in chairs. Between them is a coffee table and behind are U.S. and Russian flags.
President Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Russian President Vladimir Putin contradicted the evidence Wednesday when he asserted Russians were not a leading source of cyberattacks on the United States and other countries. They are.

Putin also accused the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny of leaving Russia unlawfully to seek medical treatment, ignoring the fact that he was flown from the country in a coma. And he distorted the circumstances of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as he sought to equate that attack with the threats his government contended with from political opposition in Russia.

President Biden’s meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva was far different from Putin’s meetings with President Trump.

Here’s a look at his claims in the news conference that followed his summit with President Biden.

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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.”

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.

Although 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 economic damage in 2017, hitting companies including shipping giant Maersk, the pharmaceutical company Merck and food company Mondelez.

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 and whose members have sometimes colluded with Russian security services.

The global ransomware plague that has caused tens of billions of dollars in damage in the last 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.

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Altogether, the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future estimated 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.

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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, such as 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 news 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 charged 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.

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PUTIN, defending Navalny’s imprisonment: “This person knew that he was breaching the laws effective in Russia. ... Consciously, I want to underline this, ignoring the demand of the law, this gentleman went abroad for treatment. ... He didn’t register with the authorities. ... He knew that he was then being investigated, and he came back deliberately.”

THE FACTS: He left the country in a coma, not by choice.

Navalny was taken into custody Jan. 17 when he returned to Russia from five months in Germany where he was recovering from nerve-agent poisoning, which he blames on the Kremlin.

Navalny fell severely ill on a domestic flight in August and was taken to a Siberian hospital in a coma. Two days later, after resistance from doctors, he was flown to Germany for treatment, still in a coma. Putin, however, implied that Navalny had made a conscious decision to leave the country. “This citizen went abroad for treatment,” he said.

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Authorities later determined that Navalny’s time abroad violated terms of a suspended sentence he had been handed in an embezzlement case that he said was politically motivated.

Nonetheless, he returned to Russia, knowing he faced potential prison time. Navalny is now serving 2½ years in prison for violating his suspended sentence terms.


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