“These attacks appear to be a continuation of multiple efforts by Nobelium to target government agencies involved in foreign policy as part of intelligence gathering efforts,” the company said.
The US Department of Homeland Security and the US State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment from CNN Business.
By gaining access to USAID’s account, the hackers were able to send out phishing emails that Microsoft said “looked authentic but included a link that, when clicked, inserted a malicious file” that allowed the hackers to access computers through a backdoor.
“This backdoor could enable a wide range of activities from stealing data to infecting other computers on a network,” Microsoft said.
Microsoft said that many of the attacks were blocked automatically. The company is notifying customers who were targeted, and said it has “no reason to believe these attacks involve any exploit against or vulnerability in Microsoft’s products or services.”
US intelligence and law enforcement agencies at the time of the SolarWinds hack said the group responsible “likely originated in Russia,” adding that the attack was believed to be an act of espionage.
Microsoft reiterated those suspected motivations in its Thursday blog post, saying that “when coupled with the attack on SolarWinds, it’s clear that part of Nobelium’s playbook is to gain access to trusted technology providers and infect their customers.”
“By piggybacking on software updates and now mass email providers, Nobelium increases the chances of collateral damage in espionage operations and undermines trust in the technology ecosystem,” the company said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday refused to comment on the specifics of Microsoft’s allegations.
“To answer your question we first need to answer the following: which groups? Why are they linked to Russia? Who attacked what? What did this lead to? What was the attack itself? And how does Microsoft know about it? If all of these questions are answered, we can think about the response [to your question],” Peskov told CNN in a conference call with journalists.
He added that he didn’t think the allegations would affect the upcoming summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
— Anna Chernova and Zahra Ullah in Moscow contributed to this article.