Russian president Vladimir Putin has expressly 'ruled out' the extradition of several Russian nationals who are accused of interfering in the last US presidential elections and orchestrating disinformation campaigns.
Putin has denied that the Kremlin controls or directs the actions of Russian hackers, stating that such hackers neither represent the Russian state nor Russian authorities.
In an interview with NBC's Megyn Kelly, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that there is no question of Russia extraditing thirteen Russian nationals who have been indicted in the United States for interfering with the 2016 Presidential elections and running disinformation campaigns on social media.
Last Friday, the thirteen Russian nationals, along with three organisations, were indicted by FBI special counsel Robert Mueller for running "interference operations targeting the United States". Among the organisations is the Russia-based Internet Research Agency which, many allege, used thousands of bots to spread fake news on social media prior to and during the elections.
History of election hacks
According to a leaked NSA report, suspected Russian hackers also conducted a spear-phishing campaign by hacking into election-related software just months prior to the US elections. The phishing e-mails were sent from hacked accounts at Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. They promised to reveal the “truth” behind the US elections. These e-mails contained PDF and .zip attachments that lead to malware installer scripts.
Kremlin was also accused by Germany of supporting a series of cyber attacks on political parties to influence the results of last year's elections. The most significant of these cyber-attacks was one conducted on the Bundestag in May 2015 which resulted in loss of large amounts of data. Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was also at the receiving end of most of these cyber-attacks.
However, Putin has dismissed the question of Kremlin's involvement in the conspiracy behind influencing the US presidential elections in 2016, stating that the US has fixed blame on Russian nationals without conducting an unbiased investigation.
When asked by Kelly on what he had done to satisfy himself that the thirteen Russian nationals and three organisations were indeed innocent, Putin said that he had no knowledge of their actions and even if they did something, they did so without the support of the Russian state.
"I know that they do not represent the Russian state, the Russian authorities. What they did specifically, I have no idea. I do not know what they were guided by. Even if they did do something, it's - simply that our - maybe it's just our American colleagues," he said.
Putin also said during the interview that instead of creating empty noises, US authorities should provide concrete evidence to the Russian government on the involvement of Russian nationals and organisations in the 2016 presidential elections before asking Russia to extradite the alleged criminals.
"Let them just not talk to the press. Let them provide some materials, specifics, and data. We'll be prepared to look at them and talk about it," he said.
Implications for Britain
Britain is no stranger to cyber attacks perpetrated by Russian hackers. In June last year, suspected hackers infiltrated as many as 90 email accounts belonging to MPs, including Prime Minister Theresa May as well as several of her cabinet colleagues. Security agencies later confirmed that the brute-force attack was state-sponsored and that the Russian government was a prime suspect.
Back in 2012, a cyber-attack on LinkedIn helped Russian hackers gain access to email addresses and passwords belonging to thousands of British MPs, parliamentary staff, and other top officials. According to a recent report from The Times, 'private log-in details of 1,000 British MPs and parliamentary staff, 7,000 police employees and more than 1,000 Foreign Office officials' are now freely available on websites run by Russian hackers.
With Putin expressly ruling out the extradition of Russian nationals, whether they did or did not conduct cyber attacks on other countries, it appears that the UK may never be able to bring such hackers to justice who use the safety of borders to conduct malicious campaigns.
While speaking at an annual economic forum in the Konstantinovsky Palace near St. Petersburg last year, Putin went so far as to say that hackers based in Russia were 'free-spirited artists' and that they were patriots eager to make their contribution.
“Hackers are free-spirited people, like artists. They read something that is happening in interstate relations, and if they're patriotically minded, they start making their contribution," he said.
Even though Russia termed last year's WannaCry ransomware attack as a scourge of humanity, it is yet to act on many domestic hacker groups who routinely conduct cyber-attacks on foreign nations and political parties. Even though authorities responsible for the UK's cyber security are now bringing in new guidances and laws to prevent cyber attacks in the future, it remains to be seen if the UK will be able to bring perpetrators of previous attacks to book in the near future.