Russian President Vladimir Putin is sharply dismissing U.S. claims that Moscow and Russian hackers are carrying out debilitating cyberattacks on American companies and government agencies, including demands for millions of dollars in ransom to restore corporate computer operating systems.
Putin rejected the claims as “farcical” in a wide-ranging interview with NBC News. His remarks came just days ahead of his Wednesday summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva, where cyberattacks are expected to be a key point of contention.
"We have been accused of all kinds of things," Putin said. "Election interference, cyberattacks and so on and so forth. And not once, not once, not one time, did they bother to produce any kind of evidence or proof. Just unfounded accusations."
In April, Biden expelled 10 Russian diplomats and imposed new sanctions on six Russian technology companies that provide support to the cyber program run by Putin's intelligence services linked to the hacking of the SolarWinds information technology company.
In May, two key U.S. businesses — Colonial Pipeline, which transports fuel in the southeastern U.S., and the JBS meat production company — were targeted in cyberattacks believed to have originated in Russia. Both Colonial and JBS paid millions of dollars in ransom demands to restore their business operations, although U.S. law enforcement officials have recovered some of the money Colonial paid.
Putin told the state TV channel Rossiya-1 on Sunday that Russia was willing to extradite cybercriminals on an equal basis with the U.S., although it was not clear what attacks on Russian corporate entities he was claiming had originated in the United States.
Biden said at a news conference in Britain at the end of the G-7 summit of leading industrialized countries that he was "open" to the idea of a prisoner swap, although he appeared to doubt that any criminals in the U.S. were committing crimes against Russians.
Later, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that Biden was "not saying he's going to be exchanging cybercriminals with Russia."
"What he was saying was that if Vladimir Putin wants to come and say, 'I'm prepared to make sure that cybercriminals are held accountable,' Joe Biden is perfectly willing to show up and say cybercriminals will be held accountable in America, because they already are," Sullivan said.
Speaking with NBC News for nearly an hour and a half, Putin offered his thoughts on several other Russian and U.S. issues.
The Russian leader denied ordering the poisoning of now jailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny with a nerve agent. Navalny accused the Russian government of being behind the poisoning.
“We don’t have this kind of habit of assassinating anybody,” Putin said, but he would not guarantee that Navalny would get out of prison alive.
"Look, such decisions in this country are not made by the president," Putin said. "He will not be treated any worse than anybody else."
The Russian leader also made claims sharply at odds with the circumstances behind the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol when hundreds of supporters of former President Donald Trump rampaged past law enforcement officials, smashed windows, ransacked offices and scuffled with police as lawmakers were certifying Biden’s Electoral College victory in last November’s election.
At a rally shortly before, Trump urged his supporters to “fight like hell” in confronting lawmakers.
More than 500 people have been arrested, and some face years in prison if convicted. But Putin claimed they were charged with criminal offenses only because they were making “political demands.”
Others, if they committed no acts of violence or vandalism, could be handed probation sentences, although only a handful of the cases have been adjudicated so far.
“Isn't that persecution for political opinions?” Putin said.
Five people linked to the chaos of January 6 were left dead, with three protesters dying from medical emergencies; a police officer defending the Capitol dying a day later from natural causes that may have been exacerbated by the attack on the building; and one protester shot dead by a police officer who has been cleared of wrongdoing.
“I want to ask you: Did you order the assassination of the woman who walked into the Congress and who was shot and killed by a policeman?” Putin said in the interview. “Do you know that 450 individuals were arrested after entering the Congress? And they didn't go there to steal a laptop. They came with political demands.”
Putin praised Trump as “an extraordinary individual, talented individual, otherwise he would not have become U.S. president. He is a colorful individual."
Asked what he thought of Biden, Putin said he was a professional and suggested that he could work with him.
"He has spent virtually his entire adulthood in politics," he said.
Putin, claiming that the U.S. wrongly attacks Russia with an array of allegations, said, "I'm surprised that we have not yet been accused of provoking the Black Lives Matter movement” that evolved as a major force last year in U.S. protests against police abuse of minorities.
Asked what he thought about Black Lives Matter, Putin said, "There are some grounds for it."
"We have always treated with understanding the fight of African Americans for their rights," said Putin, but added that he did not approve of any "extreme" behavior on the part of the movement.