U.S., Allies Seek Ways To Combat Ransomware As Online Attacks Proliferate
WASHINGTON -- The United States is rallying dozens of allies and partners at a two-day virtual conference to discuss ways to combat ransomware as online attacks proliferate, hurting businesses and undermining national security.
Representatives of 30 countries from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South America, and Asia will join Biden administration officials at the conference on October 13-14 to consider how to disrupt the ransomware ecosystem, including making it harder to use cryptocurrency as a means of payment.
The meeting -- whose participants include representatives from Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Romania -- will also focus on how to prosecute cybercriminals and how to deal with nation-states that fail to tackle cybergangs operating inside their borders.
The Biden administration has made fighting ransomware a top priority as the number and severity of cases has surged in recent years, impacting a wide array of industries from retail and food to health care and critical infrastructure.
Ransomware payments globally topped $400 million last year, the White House said.
Frank Cilluffo, the director of Auburn University’s McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security and a government adviser, told RFE/RL that ransomware has become a transnational issue which requires some transnational solutions.
"We're going to need to be able to work with like-minded allies to start addressing this challenge in earnest and collectively applying some pressure on countries that are turning a blind eye to some of this," Cilluffo said. "I'm not sure we're going to get to the goal on all that (at the conference) but you need to start the conversation."
In two high-profile cases earlier this year, cybergangs believed to be based in Russia disrupted the operations of a major U.S. pipeline operator as well as a large meat packing company. Moscow has denied allegations of cyberattacks on Western countries.
Representatives from Russia were not invited to the conference, a senior administration official told reporters on October 12, adding that Washington and Moscow recently set up a high-level, bilateral dialogue on cybersecurity.
President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed at their June summit in Geneva to relaunch talks about cyberattacks. Biden called on Putin to tackle cybercriminals operating from inside Russia.
The senior official said that the United States has "seen some steps by the Russian government" since the talks began in the summer but declined to say what they were.
The official said the October 13-14 conference would be the first in a series on the topic and did not rule out that Russia could be invited in the future.
The acceptance of cryptocurrencies and the partial anonymity they offer has helped fuel the growth of ransomware.
Herbert Lin, a senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at Stanford University, told RFE/RL that conference participants need to focus on how to interfere with cryptocurrency payments.
Ransomware will become less attractive if cybercriminals can't turn the cryptocurrency payments into cash, he said.
"The more countries involved in the discussion, the better but in the end you want to have global controls on cryptocurrency redemption," he said.
The Treasury Department last month imposed sanctions on a cryptocurrency exchange for the first time as it seeks to crack down on the use of digital currencies in ransomware attacks. The department said about 40 percent of the transactions at Suex, which operates in Russia, involves illicit activities. The new sanctions will block all trades involving Suex and U.S. entities.
Cilluffo also said the conference needs to draw attention to the problem of servers that host malware and black market websites.
Along with cryptocurrencies, such servers are key elements in the ransomware ecosystem and many are located in East European countries.
"The big issue that I'd like to see coming out of this is...putting a little bit of pressure or at least raising of awareness of what these service providers and services are offering," he said.
With reporting by Todd Prince
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The channel, which covers university news, alleged the poisonings were "intentional" and an attempt by officials to intimidate the students.
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Universities and students have long been at the center of the struggle for greater social and political freedoms in Iran.
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Spokesman Oleh Nykolenko added on Facebook that the parcels were soaked with an unspecified liquid "of a specific color and smelled correspondingly."
According to Nykolenko, the parcels were delivered to Ukrainian diplomatic missions in Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Croatia, Austria, Italy, and the Czech Republic.
The packages arrived amid Russia's continued invasion of Ukraine, and Nykolenko said "we are studying the meaning of this message."
Police in the Czech Republic said earlier in the day that Ukraine’s consulate in the country’s second-largest city, Brno, received "a suspicious letter" similar to letter bombs sent to high-profile targets in Spain in recent days.
The police said later that "an animal tissue" was found in the package.
Nykolenko said that unknown individuals called the Ukrainian Embassy in Kazakhstan saying that there was a bomb in the mission's building, which turned out to be false.
He added that the Ukrainian Embassy in the United States received a letter harshly criticizing the Ukrainian government.
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called the situation "a well-planned campaign of terror and intimidation of Ukraine's embassies and consulates."
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A day earlier, bomb disposal experts in Spain defused a letter bomb at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, the sixth such device sent to high-profile targets in Spain in the past several days.
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Speaking to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in an interview published on December 2, Grossi said he is committed to finding a solution to ensuring the safety of Europe's largest nuclear power station, "hopefully by the end of the year."
"On the safety of Zaporizhzhya there is a concrete proposal and important progress has been made," the head of the United Nation's nuclear watchdog told the newspaper.
"My commitment is to reach a solution as soon as possible.... Our aim is to avoid a nuclear accident, not to cause a militarily favorable situation for one or the other," he added.
Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other in recent months of targeting the plant, which Russian forces took control of shortly after their invasion of Ukraine in February.
The reactors at the Soviet-designed plant have been shut down, but there is a risk that nuclear fuel could overheat if power supplies to the plant's cooling systems are cut off.
The plant has been forced to operate on backup generators a number of times since the Russian invasion, but no radioactive emissions are believed to have leaked since Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Grossi said the two sides are now "in agreement on some fundamental principles" around securing the plant.
"The first is that of protection: It means accepting that you don't shoot at the facility, nor from the facility. The second is the recognition that the IAEA represents the only possible way" to ensure the safety of the plant, he said.
Grossi said it's possible he could soon meet with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to work out details of a deal.
Rosatom Chief Executive Officer Aleksei Likhachev was quoted by Russian state media as saying Moscow's representative at the IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov, is "actively working" on the issue, though he said "the decision is not on the Russian side" as the Russian government has outlined its position on creating a safety zone around the plant.
The safety zone should be set up "as soon as possible," he added.
With Russian strikes over the past weeks decimating Ukraine's energy infrastructure, Grossi said he is concerned about other nuclear plants in Ukraine, which have at times lost external power, creating potentially dangerous situations.
"The Ukrainian authorities have made a formal request to have a permanent presence of the IAEA in these plants, as in Zaporizhzhya. In this way, the agency's personnel will be deployed throughout Ukraine and will ensure that nuclear power plants are not used by anyone as weapons of blackmail in the conflict," he said.
Based on reporting by La Repubblica
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Biden Not Intending To Speak With Putin, White House Says As Scholz Presses Diplomacy
U.S. President Joe Biden is not intending to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin right now as the condition for such discussions do not exist, the White House said on December 2.
White House national-security spokesman John Kirby said Putin has shown "absolutely no inclination to be interested in dialogue of any kind."
During a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron on December 1, Biden said he would be willing to talk with Putin about resolving Russia's Ukraine invasion if the Kremlin leader "is looking for a way to end the war."
Kirby, asked about the comment on December 2, told reporters that conditions are "not at a point now where talks seem to be a fruitful avenue to approach."
Kirby also reiterated the U.S. position that only Ukraine could determine if and when there could be a negotiated settlement. Kyiv says peace talks are only possible if Russia stops attacking and withdraws.
The Kremlin responded to Biden's comment by saying the West must recognize what Moscow calls Russia's "new territories" before any talks with Putin can take place.
"The president of the Russian Federation has always been, is and remains open to negotiations in order to ensure our interests," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, adding that Russia will not pull out of Ukraine.
Peskov claimed that the search for ways to end the war has been hindered by the U.S. refusal to recognize territory in Ukraine that Russia annexed in September, a move that has been condemned as illegal by most countries.
Putin spoke earlier on December 2 with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, telling him that further attacks on Ukraine's infrastructure were "inevitable" even as millions of Ukrainians are struggling without electricity and heating at the onset of winter following waves of Russian strikes across the country.
"It was noted that the Russian Armed Forces had long refrained from precision missile strikes against certain targets on the territory of Ukraine," the Kremlin said in a statement following the first phone conversation between Putin and Scholz since mid-September.
"But now such measures have become a forced and inevitable response to Kyiv's provocative attacks on Russia's civilian infrastructure," the Kremlin said, accusing the West of pursuing "destructive" policies and "pumping" Ukraine with weapons. It was unclear which attacks the Kremlin was referring to.
Putin told Scholz that "political and financial support" from the Ukraine's Western allies "leads to the fact that Kyiv completely rejects the idea of any negotiations," the Kremlin said.
Scholz pressed Putin to seek a diplomatic solution to end the war, including troop withdrawals, German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said following the call.
"The chancellor urged the Russian president to come as quickly as possible to a diplomatic solution including the withdrawal of Russian troops," according to Hebestreit.
During the one-hour call, Scholz "condemned in particular the Russian air strikes against civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and stressed Germany's determination to support Ukraine in ensuring the defense capability against Russian aggression."
WATCH: Ukrainian civilians who have fled Russian-occupied cities in the east, along with local Bucha residents who have lost their homes, do their best to cope with temporary modular housing.
In the recently liberated southern region of Kherson, Russian missiles killed three people over the past day, Governor Yaroslav Yanushevych wrote on Telegram, while shelling the night before damaged power lines in the city where electricity had only begun to be restored nearly three weeks after Russian troops withdrew to the eastern side of the Dnieper River.
Meanwhile, fierce fighting continued in the east where Kyiv's forces fought off waves of attacks in Luhansk and Donetsk regions, the military reported early on December 2, as an aide to Zelenskiy said up to 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the start of the war.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces said in its daily update that Russian troops attacked Ukrainian positions in 14 settlements including Belohoryivka in Luhansk and Bakhmut in Donetsk, while carrying out 30 air strikes and 35 multiple-rocket attacks on civilian settlements along the contact line.
In Kupyansk and Lyman in the east and in Zaporizhzhya in central Ukraine, the Russians were on the defensive, the General Staff said, while in the Bakhmut and Avdiyivka directions in the east, Moscow's forces were on the offensive.
The battlefield reports could not be independently verified.
Meanwhile, Mykhaylo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, told Ukraine's Channel 24 television on December 1 that as many as 13,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed since Russia's invasion in February.
"We have official estimates from the General Staff.... And they range from 10,000...to 13,000 dead," Podolyak said.
He said Zelenskiy would make the official data public "when the right moment comes." Podolyak's comments have not been confirmed by the military.
In June, Zelenskiy said Ukraine was losing "60 to 100 soldiers per day, killed in action, and around 500 people wounded in action."
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in September that 5,937 Russian troops had been killed in the nearly seven months of fighting to that point.
The figures could not be independently verified and it is believed both sides are minimizing their losses to avoid lowering the troops' morale.
U.S. General Mark Milley said last month said more than 100,000 Russian military personnel and 100,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed or wounded since the start of the war.
The figures advanced by Milley -- which could not be independently confirmed -- are the most precise to date from the U.S. government.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and BBC
Reports: EU Close To Agreeing On $60 A Barrel Cap For Russian Seaborne Oil
EU governments have tentatively agreed on a $60 a barrel price cap on Russian seaborne oil aimed at reducing Moscow's ability to finance its war in Ukraine.
"The price cap is set at $60 with a provision to keep it 5 percent below market price for Russian crude, based on [International Energy Agency] figures," an EU diplomat said, according to Reuters on December 1.
U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said he was encouraged by the news about the tentative agreement on the price cap -- an idea supported by the United States and the other Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized nations -- adding that he expects the European Union to iron out details and reach a final agreement.
EU countries have wrangled for days over the details of the price cap. Poland, which had pushed for the cap to be as low as possible, had as of late on December 1 not confirmed its support for the deal, Reuters and AFP reported.
The initial G7 proposal last week was for a cap of $65-$70 per barrel with no adjustment mechanism.
Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia rejected that level because Russian Urals crude, the main variety sold by Russia, was trading at below $70 a barrel on December 1 and last week traded at about $55.
The G7 price cap on Russian seaborne crude oil is to kick in on December 5, replacing an outright ban on buying Russian seaborne crude.
The price cap would work by prohibiting shippers and insurance companies from handling cargoes of Russian crude unless it is sold at or below the price cap.
The world's key shipping and insurance firms are based in G7 countries, giving them leverage to set the price cap and make it difficult for Moscow to sell its oil for a higher price.
The adjustment mechanism would mean the price cap would be reviewed in mid-January and every two months after that.
The document outlining the tentative agreement, quoted by Reuters, said a 45-day "transitional period" would apply to vessels carrying Russian-origin crude oil that was loaded before December 5 and unloaded at its final destination by January 19, 2023.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned last week that any attempt by the West to cap the price of Russian oil would have "grave consequences" for world markets. But the G7 vowed to go ahead.
Oil ministers from OPEC+ cartel of petroleum exporting countries, of which Russia is a member, will meet in Vienna on December 4.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, RFE/RL's Russian Service, Reuters, and AFP
Leaked Document Says Iranian Leadership Is Seeking To Discredit Sunni Cleric
A leaked document from the hard-line Fars news agency says Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has told security and military officials to try and disgrace a top Sunni cleric, who is a vocal critic of the government, instead of arresting him.
The document was published on November 30 after the hacktivist group Black Reward announced that it had succeeded in hacking the Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The group released dozens of documents and videos it said were prepared by the news agency.
The cleric, Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzah, is regarded across the country as a spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslim population. He is the director of the main Sunni seminary in Iran and has been under pressure for his comments against the Islamic republic.
"He [Molavi Abdolhamid] should not be arrested. Rather, he should be dishonored," according to one of the documents, which are delivered as bulletins prepared by Fars and delivered to senior IRGC officials, which was handing down comments from the Ayatollah.
Early last month, Molavi Abdolhamid said senior officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were "responsible" for the killing of protesters during the so-called "Bloody Friday" massacre in the southeastern city of Zahedan on September 30. He also called for an immediate referendum with the presence of international observers to "change policies based on the wishes of the people."
Almost 100 people were killed and hundreds injured by security forces in the incident, which came during protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police and the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a local police commander.
Anger over Amini's death has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.
Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran where Molavi Abdolhamid is based, but make up only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
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