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Regional Interests

'There Is Not Unlimited Patience': U.S. Ambassador To Russia Discusses Cyberattacks

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden flew to Geneva last month for their big summit, relations between the countries were at a low, leading many to wonder, would the two presidents agree to anything concrete, anything they could point to as a sign of progress to emerge from the talks? Well, probably the most concrete development was their ambassadors could return to their posts. Russia's Anatoly Antonov, who'd been called home to Moscow in March after Biden agreed in an interview that Putin was a, quote, "killer" - he returned to work in Washington. And U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan flew back to his post at the American Embassy in Moscow, which is where we find him now. Ambassador Sullivan, good to speak with you.

JOHN SULLIVAN: Oh, it's great to speak with you, Mary Louise - happy to do it.

KELLY: Are you settled back in there yet?

SULLIVAN: I am. I am. It's quite warm here in Moscow - unusually warm weather.

KELLY: Ah. Would you tell us the story of how you came to leave Moscow? I was trying to figure it out. You weren't kicked out.

SULLIVAN: Sure.

KELLY: Were you invited to leave?

SULLIVAN: No.

KELLY: How would you describe it?

SULLIVAN: I was basically told that I would be shunned by the Russian government. So...

KELLY: Who told you that? How was it delivered?

SULLIVAN: Both by the Foreign Ministry and by the Office of Presidential Administration Ambassador Yuri Ushakov, who is a foreign policy adviser to President Putin.

KELLY: OK.

SULLIVAN: I was told within a day of the announcement in April of our response to, you know, Russian malign activity - the SolarWinds hack, election interference and the bounty story. In response to what the United States government did, among the things that the Russian government said was that I should go home for consultations. You know, I said, I work for President Biden, and if he wants me to come home, I will come home. But otherwise, are you telling me that you will declare me persona non grata if I don't leave? And the response I got was, absolutely not. But they made it clear that they weren't going to engage with me until I left and went back to Washington.

KELLY: Well, it's an interesting anecdote to begin with because it gives some insight into just how tense the relationship was in the run up to the Geneva summit, which you were at. You were obviously put there as part of the U.S. delegation. And I want to ask about where things have gone since then. And let's start with the top item on the agenda, which I think it's safe to say was cyber - cyberattacks. President Biden told President Putin, enough; y'all have got to knock it off. Have you seen any evidence that Putin is inclined to comply?

SULLIVAN: Well, it's a little more complex than that because the president's been very careful in attributing cyberattacks, ransomware attacks and making clear that we are not attributing such attacks in certain recent cases directly and definitively to the Russian government.

KELLY: Absolutely right - attributing to Russian cybercriminals or hackers who were operating from inside Russia.

SULLIVAN: Yes, that the individuals and entities that are doing this are within the territory, we believe, of the Russian Federation and have called upon the Russian government to cooperate with us to crack down on those criminals who were engaging in extremely dangerous and costly ransomware and other cyberattacks not only in the United States, but around the world. And that's what President Biden...

KELLY: Well, and I guess - forgive me for jumping in...

SULLIVAN: Sure.

KELLY: ...But that's my point. Without attributing this to the Russian government, is there any doubt in your mind that if Vladimir Putin wanted to shut these criminals down, he could do it?

SULLIVAN: Well, we're only - what? - three weeks from the summit. And I think it's safe to say that if we're not talking about Russian government-controlled activity, the ability of the Russian government to immediately influence these type of criminal actors, we don't doubt their ability to do so, and we are following up aggressively, but it's not a light switch that's turned on and off. I don't think it's the case that the president expected that we were going to immediately see results just days after the summit in Geneva. There is not unlimited patience. The president is firm and definite in his commitment to take action to stop this. And we're engaged with the Russian government to see that they do.

KELLY: And I just have to push you once more...

SULLIVAN: Sure.

KELLY: ...Because when you say there's not unlimited patience, I mean, this has been happening for years. I'm sure it was happening, you know, well before it came to public attention but - 2016, the DNC servers being hacked.

SULLIVAN: It comes - there's a difference, though, because you're, again, talking about cyberattacks that we have attributed to the Russian government and imposed sanctions on the Russian government in response to that. What we're talking about here, the most recent episodes that you referred to, don't involve, at least to this point - I need to be careful about that - at least to this point, an attribution to the Russian government. And that's an important distinction.

KELLY: I've seen indications that the RNC contractor who was breached, which is one of these two very recent ones, that there are signs pointing to the SVR - Russian Intelligence.

SULLIVAN: I've seen media reports to suggest that. I don't have - you'd have to check with my colleagues in Washington. But to my knowledge, there hasn't been a breach or attack that has been attributed to the Russian government...

KELLY: Officially yet.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

KELLY: Last question, which is just about the embassy, that you are there back and running again in Moscow. How's it going to work when Russian nationals are barred from working there? Right now, Russians can't get U.S. visas. American citizen services are curtailed. What is the situation?

SULLIVAN: Well, it's - starting on an August 1, Mary Louise, we're not going to be allowed, under Russian law, to employ third-country nationals - so Russian citizens or any third-country nationals - at our embassy or our mission in Russia. And it's greatly diminished our capacity to provide, as you note, visa services, consular services. Just to give you a perspective on how this mission has shrunk, in 2017 - starting in 2017, when I became deputy secretary of state, we had approximately 1,200 employees - Americans and Russians and third-country nationals. Starting on August 1, we'll be a tenth that size. We'll have approximately 120.

KELLY: Wow.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, wow is right. You know, that includes all the people who are necessary to maintain security, technicians who keep the lights on, keep the computer systems and phones working. So there isn't a lot left over for diplomacy or consular work. And I know that's caused great consternation both among Russians and Americans. Businesses, sports teams, the NHL, who have Russian players in their families - they want to get back in the United States before training camp starts in late summer, early fall. But we're just a shadow of the mission that we had here not that many years ago.

KELLY: Ambassador Sullivan, thank you.

SULLIVAN: Thank you, Mary Louise. It was my pleasure.

KELLY: That is John Sullivan, U.S. ambassador to Moscow. And after we taped this interview, we learned that President Biden spoke with Putin today. Biden told reporters that, quote, "I made it very clear to him that the United States expects when a ransomware operation is coming from his soil, even though it's not sponsored by the state, we expect him to act."

(SOUNDBITE OF JINSANG'S "LEARNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.