AP FACT CHECK: Putin's errant claims on cyberattacks, Jan. 6
Russian President Vladimir Putin contradicted the evidence Wednesday when he asserted Russians are 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 Navalny was flown from the country while he was in a coma.
And Putin distorted the circumstances of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol when he tried to equate that attack with the threats his government contends with from political opposition in Russia.
In response, President Joe Biden made the unsubstantiated claim that the Capitol attackers killed a police officer, whose death actually was attributed to natural causes possibly aggravated by the events of the insurrection.
A look at their claims in separate news conferences that followed their meeting Wednesday in Geneva.
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 cyberspace 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.
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 economic damage in 2017, hitting companies including shipping giant Maersk, the pharmaceutical company Merck and the 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 and whose members have sometimes colluded with Russian security services.
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 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 and requiring investigators prove they have probable cause the person committed a federal crime, or an indictment from 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.
BIDEN, on Putin comparing the Jan. 6 Capitol attack to political opponents trying to undermine him in Russia: “I think that’s a ridiculous comparison. It’s one thing for — literally — criminals to break through a cordon, go into the Capitol, kill a police officer, and be held unaccountable than it is for people who are … marching on a capitol saying, you’re not allowing me to speak freely, you’re not allowing me to do A, B or C or D.”
THE FACTS: His allegation that attackers killed a police officer is unproven. The truth about the death of Brian Sicknick, a U.S. Capitol Police officer, is more complicated.
The District of Columbia medical examiner’s office ruled that Sicknick died from natural causes, though the stressful circumstances he faced in the melee a day earlier had probably contributed to his condition. Two men have been charged with assaulting and spraying a chemical irritant at Sicknick in the riot.
Sicknick had a stroke. The medical examiner’s determination means that his death is not the result of any injuries.
Capitol Police accepted the medical examiner’s findings but said the ruling didn’t change the fact that Sicknick had died in the line of duty, “courageously defending Congress and the Capitol.”
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 while he was in a coma; he did not leave Russia 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 that 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.
Authorities later determined that Navalny’s time abroad violated terms of a suspended sentence he had been handed in an embezzlement case that he says 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.
After Putin’s comments, Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, posted on Instagram a photo of a covered human form on a gurney outside an airplane. “I kept a photograph of how Alexei, deliberately ignoring the requirement to be registered at the inspection, ‘went abroad for treatment,'” she wrote, mocking Putin’s words.