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The Trail of Russian Hackers, Putin's Revenge in Siberia

Vladimir Fomenko, a 26-year-old college dropout from the Siberian city of Biysk, is denying his company's involvement with the U.S. hacking scandal.
Richard Engel talks with Vladimir Fomenko, the owner of Internet hosting company King Servers, in Biysk, Russia.
Richard Engel talks with Vladimir Fomenko, the owner of Internet hosting company King Servers, in Biysk, Russia.NBC News

BIYSK, Russia — This Soviet-era industrial city with a population of roughly 200,000 in Siberia is hardly an obvious place to be connected to a cyber attack on the American election system.

Drive past apartment blocks and factories, and visitors can meet the only individual implicated so far in the hacking attack on the voter registration databases in Arizona and Illinois.

Only, Biysk is about as far away from America as you can get.

“If you take a globe, spin it 10 times and point your finger, you'd never hit Biysk,” Vladimir Fomenko said of his hometown.

Richard Engel talks with Vladimir Fomenko, the owner of Internet hosting company King Servers, in Biysk, Russia.NBC News

Fomenko, a 26-year-old technical college dropout, came prepared for a meeting with NBC News. He had printed notes stacked neatly beside him in a two-room rented apartment that serves as the headquarters for his internet hosting company, King Servers.

Fomenko wanted to make sure he got his message across: He wasn’t involved in any hacking against the U.S. at any time, and if his clients used the servers to launch the attack, they did so without his knowledge or consent.

Related: U.S. Publicly Blames Russian Government for Hacks

“It’s like if someone buys an umbrella at a store and then uses it to hit someone,” Fomenko said. “Is the seller responsible for that?"

But how did Fomenko get to this point?

The Server Shell Game

On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence made a major announcement. They confirmed they are confident of what cyber experts have long reported: Top Russian officials are directing a cyber campaign in an attempt to manipulate American politics.

In a joint statement, the U.S. security agencies blamed Russia for the hacking and leaking of the Democratic National Committee emails earlier this year, as well as those of former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Related: Why Experts Are Sure Russia Hacked the DNC Emails

Twenty American states have also suffered break-ins of their election systems. The statement released on Friday said the U.S. intelligence community is “not now in a position” to attribute that hacking attacks on the state election systems.

A senior administration official, however, told NBC News that intelligence officials do believe the Putin administration was responsible for that, too. But what does any of this have to do with Biysk?

“We are doing an awful lot of work through our counter-intelligence investigators to try to understand exactly what mischief the Russians might be up to in connection with our political institutions and the election system more broadly,” FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress last week.

That work produced results. In the case of the cyber attacks against the Arizona and Illinois voter registration databases, the FBI uncovered the unique labels known as IP addresses for the computers the hackers used. It was like finding that the burglar left his wallet at the crime scene.

The FBI issued a “flash” alert, warning state election officials around the country to be on the lookout.

The cyber security firm ThreatConnect took the investigation a step further, and tracked down the IP addresses to King Servers, the company Vladamir Fomenko runs from Biysk.

In the interview with NBC News, Fomenko admitted that his servers were involved in the attacks against Arizona and Illinois. He insists, however, that he doesn’t know who the hackers are.

Fomenko said his clients — many of whom are pornographers — rent server space from him anonymously.

"In our business, these days," Fomenko said, "people don’t ask a new client what he’s doing."

The Russian Perpetrators

Fomenko, who started his server company when he was just 18, claims King Servers was simply a pass through, used by someone else — but whom?

Andrei Soldatov, a leading investigative journalist, believes a Russian-backed campaign of hacking is underway, directed by the office of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“This is going right to the heart of the Kremlin,” said Soldatov, the author of “The Red Web,” a new book about the Russian cyber-sphere. “If you look at all these cyber attacks, what strikes is that they are really adventurous and you would only be so adventurous if you rely on support from the very top.”

The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence seem to have arrived in the same conclusions.

“Only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities,” Friday’s statement read.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any participation in cyber attacks against the United States, calling the accusations “nonsense.”

Putin, however, also said that some of the information stolen from the servers of the Democratic Party and disclosed on the internet was of public interest.

Why Hack Hillary?

The U.S. Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Friday “thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”

Many pundits have suggested Russia is trying to push voters toward GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who’s been complementary of Putin.

“I’m not happy about being hacked by the Russians in their quest to throw the election to Donald Trump,” Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta wrote Friday on Twitter after the release by Wikileaks of what appeared to be hacked emails from his personal account.

Soldatov believes that the Russian hackers’ are less interested in giving Trump a helping hand than in hurting his opponent.

“Putin seems to have a personal issue against Hillary,” Soldatov said. “She was and she still is considered to be a threat to the national security of Russia.”

Related: Russia Hack of U.S. Politics Bigger Than Disclosed, Includes GOP

Soldatov traces Putin’s animosity toward Clinton back to 2011 to 2012, when Putin directly accused the then-secretary of state of instigating a wave of anti-government demonstrations in the streets of Moscow.

“She set the tone for certain actors inside the country; she gave the signal,” Putin said at the time. “They heard this signal and, with the support of the U.S. State Department, started actively doing their work.”

Putin easily survived the short-lived public uprising, but still blames Clinton for it. The cyber attacks are, according to Soldatov, at least to a degree, Putin’s way of taking revenge.

Richard Engel talks with Vladimir Fomenko, the owner of Internet hosting company King Servers, in Biysk, Russia.NBC News

Back in Siberia, King Servers’ Fomenko was dismissive about the entire process of electing a new president of the United States.

“It’s a ridiculous election,” he said.

Fomenko says neither the FBI nor Russian authorities have contacted him. He added that he might be able to offer clues from the trail the hackers left before he shut down his servers.

He also says his mystery clients stiffed him: They left an unpaid bill for $290.