Russia Dismisses USAID Cyber Attack Allegations by Microsoft

Moscow has batted away allegations that it was linked to a cyber attack on organizations including the State Department's international aid agency.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov branded the claims "abstract," and said he did not expect they would not affect next month's summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin.

Microsoft said it had discovered a "malicious email campaign" operated by Nobelium, the group it said was behind the attacks on SolarWinds customers in 2020, which compromised U.S. federal agencies.

That attack was linked by U.S. intelligence to the SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence service, and led to a further souring of relations between Russian and the U.S., followed by tit-for-tat sanctions and diplomatic expulsions.

Tom Burt, the tech giant's corporate vice president, wrote in a blog post on Thursday that Nobelium targeted about 3,000 individual accounts across more than 150 organizations in 24 countries, with the largest share in the U.S.

Significantly, the hack allowed the group to gain access to an email marketing account used by the State Department's international aid agency, USAID, from which it targeted other organizations.

The New York Times reported that targets included human rights groups and organizations that have been critical of Putin.

But Kremlin spokesman Peskov said the claim of Moscow's involvement was "such an abstract statement" and that it was "like telling us that it seems there is a big threat coming from Microsoft and its software."

"It would be the same unfounded accusation," he added, according to the news agency Tass.

When asked about whether the situation could lead to a further escalation of tensions between Moscow and Washington, Peskov replied: "To answer that question you need to answer what groups there are, why they are linked to Russia, who attacked what, what led to it....and how did Microsoft know about it?

"If you answer all these questions, then you can consider the answer."

When asked if the incident would affect the scheduled Geneva summit on June 16 between Biden and Putin, Peskov replied: "It doesn't seem so to us."

A spokesperson for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security said it was "working with the FBI and USAID to better understand the extent of the compromise and assist potential victims," The Times reported.

Tom Burt, Microsoft's corporate vice president said that the attack was "yet another example of how cyberattacks have become the tool of choice for a growing number of nation-states to accomplish a wide variety of political objectives."

When contacted for comment, Microsoft referred Newsweek to Burt's blog post and said there was nothing else to add.

Generic image of a computer hacker
The Kremlin has said it has no information on the cyberattacks on USAID allegedly linked to Moscow. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov says the claims should not affect the summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, Getty Images

This story has been updated with a response to Newsweek by Microsoft.