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US and Russia agree to let ambassadors return to their host countries

Tense relations between the US and Russia led ambassadors to return home earlier this year.

Image: PA

Updated Jun 16th 2021, 8:20 PM

THE US AND Russia have agreed for their ambassadors to return, after talks in Geneva with between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin.

“They will return to their place of work. When exactly is a purely technical question,” Putin told reporters after a summit in Geneva.

Diplomatic relations between Moscow and Washington had all but broken down since Biden took office.

After Biden likened Putin to a “killer”, Russia in March took the rare step of recalling its ambassador Anatoly Antonov and said the US envoy John Sullivan to Moscow likewise should return to Washington.

Sullivan left Moscow in April, as the two countries announced a wave of tit-for-tat sanctions and expulsions of diplomats.

In May, Russia formally designated the United States an “unfriendly” state, barring its embassy from employing Russian nationals.

The only other country on that list is the Czech Republic.

Putin said that his first face-to-face meeting with US counterpart Biden was constructive and the two sides had agreed to discuss cybersecurity.

“The conversation was absolutely constructive”, Putin told reporters, adding that they “agreed to start consultations on cybersecurity”.

Washington has long complained of what it says is persistent and combative Russian cyber activity, namely meddling and interference in elections, that it says have been carried out either by Russian security services or hackers with links to the Kremlin.

Putin said the US had requested information on 10 separate cybersecurity incidents from Russia and that Washington had received “exhaustive” answers in all cases.

“Russia sent 45 such requests to the United States last year,” he said, “and 35 this year.”

“And we have not received a single answer,” he said, claiming that: “The largest number of cyberattacks in the world are carried out from the US space.”

Biden’s administration brought sanctions against Russia in April in response to the SolarWinds cyberattack that targeted federal organisations and more than 100 US companies.

Biden had also vowed to raise pressure on Russia for harbouring cybercriminals who have been blamed in major attacks on a US oil pipeline and a meat supplier.

Russia denies claims of any involvement with hacking or ransomware gangs.

The US Justice Department’s top national security official said today that the Russian government actively harbours hackers and ransomware extortionists operating from inside the country.

Putin also dismissed Washington’s concerns over Moscow’s growing military presence in the Arctic.

“The concerns of the American side about militarisation have no basis,” Putin said, adding that Russia is “restoring destroyed infrastructure” in the region.

Biden said that discussions were “positive”, but that he warned his Russian counterpart that Washington would not tolerate interference in US democracy.

“The tone of the entire meeting… was good, positive,” Biden told reporters after the summit ended.

“There wasn’t any strident action taken.”

The meeting in an elegant villa overlooking Lake Geneva came at a time of tensions between Washington and Moscow being at their highest in years, and Biden acknowledged there had been a number of disagreements.

But, he stressed, “it was not done in a hyperbolic atmosphere. That is too much of what’s been going on.”

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For the US, a key complaint is what it characterises as persistent and combative Russian cyber-activity, namely meddling and interference in elections that it says have been carried out either by Russian security services or hackers with links to the Kremlin.

Biden stressed that he had made it clear to Putin “that we will not tolerate attempts to violate our democratic sovereignty or destabilise our democratic elections and we would respond.”

Biden also said he had told Putin that “certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to attack — period — by cyber or any other means. I gave him a list.”

The two leaders agreed to task experts to help build up a common understanding “about what’s off limits”, and to “follow up on specific cases that originate in other countries, in either of our countries,” he said.

“Responsible countries need to take action against criminals who conduct ransomware activities on their territory,” he said.

Biden said he had pointed out to Putin that the US also has “significant cyber-capability, and he knows it.

“I think that the last thing he wants now is a Cold War.”

Biden took issue with comments by Putin that seem to justify his crackdown on opposition figures by citing the need to avoid a situation like the storming of the US Capitol in January.

“That’s a ridiculous comparison,” Biden said.

“It’s one thing for literally criminals to break through a cordon, go into the Capitol, kill a police officer and be held accountable, than it is for people objecting, marching on the Capitol and saying you are not allowing me to speak freely.”

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