Europe Politics

Putin's finance minister says there are no hackers working for the Russian government

Key Points
  • Russia's relationship with the West remains strained, and increasingly so, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The U.S. Department for Homeland Security, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency, the National Security Agency, Canada's Communications Security Establishment and the U.K.'s National Cyber Security Centre joined forces Thursday in accusing Russia of the hacking campaign.
  • Officials said a group known as APT29 — also known as "Cozy Bear" — was likely to blame for the attack.
The golden domes of the Kremlin's churches and cathedrals sit illuminated at dusk in Moscow, Russia, on Monday, April 9, 2018.
Andrey Rudakov | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Russia has rejected allegations that it coordinated hacking attempts against academic and pharmaceutical bodies in the West, with Finance Minister Anton Siluanov telling CNBC Monday that no hackers work for the Kremlin.

"There are no hackers working for the Russian government, so our government does not consider any actions by hackers, nor does it coordinate them," Siluanov told CNBC's Geoff Cutmore.

"I can reiterate that from our point of view no hackers were given any special task of accessing pharma companies' websites," he said, insisting that the country had no vested interest in other nations' coronavirus vaccine development as Russia is trying to develop its own.

"Therefore I do not really see any point for hackers to be involved in these activities," Siluanov added. 

The U.S. Department for Homeland Security, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency, the National Security Agency, Canada's Communications Security Establishment and the U.K.'s National Cyber Security Centre joined forces Thursday in accusing Russia of the hacking campaign.

Officials said a group known as APT29 — also known as "Cozy Bear" — was likely to blame for the attack. They said it used spear phishing and custom malware to target vaccine researchers, adding the group "almost certainly" operates as part of the Russian intelligence services.

"It is completely unacceptable that the Russian Intelligence Services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic," U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement.

Strained relations

On Friday, Russian officials also pointed to a deal to mass produce a British coronavirus vaccine, being developed by Astrazeneca and Oxford University, as evidence that Russia has no need to steal data on vaccines.

Russia's relationship with the West remains strained, and increasingly so, amid the coronavirus pandemic. The latest accusations come after Russia was accused of spreading disinformation about the coronavirus as the virus spread throughout Europe in spring. Again, Russia denied the allegations, saying they were unfounded and lacked common sense.

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Diplomatic disputes aside, however, and Russia is having to confront the economic crisis precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic along with the rest of the international community. Russia has the fourth-highest number of coronavirus cases, with nearly 770,000 confirmed infections, after the U.S., Brazil and India, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

A week ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly supported a proposal to give the country more time to implement a massive $363 billion national investment plan, allowing the  completion deadline for the package of measures to be delayed by six years to 2030, as the country tries to deal with a recession brought on by the crisis.

In June, when Russia's central bank cut its key interest rate by 100 basis points to 4.5%, the lowest level since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it warned that the contraction of GDP (gross domestic product) in the second quarter "could prove more sizeable than expected." It forecast that GDP will decrease by 4-6% in 2020.

Economists suggest that Russia could see the slowest recovery among developed nations. A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit published last week stated that the global economy would not recover to pre-coronavirus levels until 2022, with Russia not expected to reach that level until 2024 having lost almost 10 years of growth, the report noted.

Finance Minister Siluanov did not appear concerned that allegations of hacking could perpetuate an image of Russia as a "bad actor" and could damage the country's standing among investors at a time when it needs them most.

"How could it impact the economy? I really do not think that it would have any impact on the economy. We are following our own course of anti-crisis measures, we shall be putting them in place. These negative stories do appear from time to time, unfortunately," he said.

"The main point is the type of policies we pursue. They are balanced. I spoke about our fiscal policy at the G-20 (Group of 20) finance ministers' meeting. We have no problems with plugging the budget deficit, we are finding our own domestic investors. Should we borrow money outside Russia, or shouldn't we? We shall see, all depends on market conditions. I am sure, however, that we shall be able to borrow externally at excellent rates," he said.

"The second point I wanted to make concerns investment in our economy. This is foremost. We need to stimulate investors. There has been a recovery in domestic investors' activity in our economy, and we always welcome foreign investors, too. I would disagree that Russia's image has suffered from hackers' attacks or other negative news, it has not. The most important thing is the balanced macro-economic policy that we pursue," he said.

—CNBC's Sam Shead and Ryan Browne contributed to this article.