Justice Department officials have accused the Chinese government of exerting control of some of the criminal hacking gangs operating in its territory by directing them to carry out assignments. In return, China’s intelligence services give the criminal groups leeway to attack American businesses.
China’s control of its hackers is similar to the kind of tight restrictions it places on society, business and its propaganda efforts.
But the Russian government has a different approach. Moscow allows oligarchs and criminal groups to follow their own plans, so long as they do not challenge the Kremlin and are generally working toward President Vladimir V. Putin’s goals, according to American government officials.
As a result, Russian control of hackers is often looser, giving Mr. Putin and other Russian officials a degree of deniability. But the risk is that the criminal groups can go too far, provoking a strong response from the United States, American officials said. Mr. Putin’s preferred strategy is to allow hackings that cause trouble for the United States, but stop short of setting off an international crisis.
“The government guys do not instruct who to hack, but over a long period of time there is really interesting connective tissue between the government and the criminal networks,” said Christopher Ahlberg, the chief executive of Recorded Future.
Russia’s Federal Security Service, the intelligence agency known as the F.S.B., has cultivated hackers specializing in ransomware, Richard W. Downing, a deputy assistant attorney general, said at a Senate hearing in July.
“As we know, Russia has a long history of ignoring cybercrime within its borders so long as the criminals victimize non-Russians,” Mr. Downing said.