ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
An overwhelming consensus is building that Russia is behind a sweeping hack into U.S. government and private industry networks. In Russia, those accusations have been met with strenuous denials. But as NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin does not hide his admiration for spies and hackers.
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LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: At a solemn ceremony on the outskirts of Moscow Sunday, President Putin laid flowers at a monument outside the headquarters of the SVR, Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service. Putin's visit would hardly have been news except that the SVR is the elite Russian intelligence agency American experts suspect of being behind the massive hack into U.S. government computer systems.
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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: It's essential to keep building on the success of Russia's counterintelligence, Putin said, and pay close attention to information security. The Kremlin denies any involvement in the American hack, calling the accusations groundless. But in the United States, officials say the breach is so big, all levels of government are at risk. Irina Borogan, the author of several books on Russia's spy agencies, says it's important, though, to distinguish between a cyberattack and the discreet business of spying.
IRINA BOROGAN: If you're going to steal some information, it's classical espionage. But if you're going to put all this information on the Internet, that's absolutely another situation. The goal is to have some influence on the situation inside the country.
KIM: She says the Kremlin's goals are still unclear.
BOROGAN: Because a Russian operation was interrupted in the middle, we can't make a distinction between cyberattack and espionage because we don't know what was the final goal. Was it to disrupt government agencies or to steal some information from them?
KIM: Russia has been perfecting its cyber capabilities for years. It's widely suspected of launching cyberattacks on neighbors Estonia and Ukraine and masterminded the interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Russia, for its part, says it's the target of foreign hackers. According to Putin, Russia faces thousands of cyberattacks on government agencies every year. But he himself has defended Russian hackers in the past.
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PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: Hackers are free people, like artists, Putin said. If they're patriotically minded, they'll do what they see as their part to fight Russia's enemies.
MARK GALEOTTI: The reference to patriotic hackers who might be doing things, always with a bit of a smirk and a nod and a wink, is essentially a way of saying it was us without admitting it was us.
KIM: That's Mark Galeotti, who runs the Mayak Intelligence consultancy in London.
GALEOTTI: He wants all the benefits of claiming that it was smart Russians who carried out the attack without admitting that it was Russian government agencies at work.
KIM: During this year's U.S. election campaign, Putin offered the United States a treaty banning cyberattacks.
GALEOTTI: By proposing this treaty, which he does not expect for a minute that the West will take up, he positions Russia as being the adult in the room. I think we should realize that this is essentially a political gambit rather than a serious venture.
KIM: In any case, the Trump administration ignored the proposal, and President-elect Joe Biden is vowing to hold the perpetrators of the latest hack accountable.
Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.
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