President Vladimir Putin has claimed that Russia thwarted nearly 500 spies in 2017, and urged the Federal Security Service (FSB) to step up cybersecurity efforts and strengthen measures to protect secret communications.
Putin spoke to senior FSB officials at a meeting on March 5, less than two weeks ahead of an election that appears certain to hand him a new six-year term.
His remarks came amid acrimony between Moscow and many Western countries over what the United States and others say are Russian efforts to use cyberattacks as one of several tools to sow discord and interfere in elections abroad.
"In recent years, as you know very well, there has been an increase in foreign intelligence agency activity," said Putin, who critics accuse of using government meetings to campaign ahead of the March 18 vote.
"They are working diligently on Russia, using the most modern methods, spy craft, and technical espionage means," he said, adding that "last year alone, the activities of 72 career intelligence officers and 397 agents of foreign spy services were thwarted."
Speaking at a separate meeting on March 5, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov repeated Russian accusations that the United States was seeking to meddle in the Russian election.
Ryabkov asserted that the United States was using "totally biased and baseless" allegations of Russian meddling as a pretext to interfere in the Russian vote. The United States denies it has done so.
Protection Against 'Radicalism'
In his comments, Putin said that "Russia's information space must be protected from modern cyberthreats," Russian news agencies reported."
"It is necessary to improve the state system for detecting, preventing, and dealing with the aftermath of computer attacks against Russia's information resources," he said.
The FSB must "increase the reliability of confidential communication networks in bodies of public authority and defense and security structures," Putin said.
Putin, a former Soviet KGB officer who headed the FSB during his rise to power, has brought many people with similar backgrounds into high-level positions.
He has frequently portrayed Russia as a country encircled by Western adversaries bent on weakening it, undermining its sovereignty, and setting some of its citizens against the government.
At the FSB meeting, he said that young Russians must be protected from "radicalism" of all kinds, a remark that critics are likely to interpret as aimed at least in part against political foes.
"It's necessary to protect people, but primarily young people, from those trying to infect society with aggression and intolerance, xenophobia, and nationalism," Putin said.
"Whatever its political and ideological tinge might be, radicalism is destructive in its essence, and we have to safeguard the country and the people's future from this threat," he said.
Russian officials have portrayed Aleksei Navalny, a prominent opposition leader who has been barred from the ballot because of a criminal conviction he contends was engineered by the Kremlin, as a radical.
Putin's popularity, his control over the levers of power, and what critics say have been years of steps to suppress dissent and marginalize opponents virtually ensure his victory in the election.