At a certain point, you’d think that the sheer amount of evidence supporting allegations of Kremlin interference in Western democracies would overwhelm efforts on the part of Moscow’s media surrogates to posit a global conspiracy, but don’t hold your breath.
Russophobia is obviously a real thing and the cartoonish type-casting of Russian villains in American popular culture lends credence to the notion that Westerners are predisposed to unjustifiably blaming “Boris and Natasha” for everything under the sun.
But make no mistake, the threat is real, and on Thursday, the world got further evidence of Moscow’s malign efforts when the Netherlands revealed that four GRU officers were caught in the act as they tried to hack into the world’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Here are the men, identified as Aleksei Morenets, Evgenii Serebriakov, Oleg Sotnikov and Alexey Minin.
Apparently, the four GRU agents traveled to the Netherlands on April 10. When they got there, they rented a car and parked it in a hotel parking lot near the OPCW headquarters (in the Hague). At a press conference, Dutch counter-intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Onno Eichelsheim, gave a detailed account of exactly what went on after that. To wit:
They were doing some exploration work for a close-access hack operation. We know for sure they were not on holiday in the Netherlands. They had numerous telephones on them, different sizes, different makes. They had quite a few on them personally. Morenets tried to destroy the phone, or at least break the phone, when the operation was destroyed. He did not succeed completely.
Sotnikov had a large amount of cash on him: 20,000 euros and 20,000 dollars. That is not an amount I carry on holiday. They were very aware of security. In the boot of the Citron C3 (car they rented), we recognized high-value, high-grade equipment to hack wifi channels. The main element is of course the antenna that needs to access the network, in this case the network of the OPCW.
The antenna aimed towards the OPCW. A battery to boost the power of their equipment was bought on April 11. This battery was active in the back of this car at the Marriott hotel. That caused an immediate threat to the OPCW network. It is my task that those type of cyber operations cannot be a success and that is why we decided to disrupt the GRU operation and the four men were accompanied to leave the country. In that way we were able to protect the OPCW and we were able to avoid serious damage to the OPCW.
If you’re wondering whether that effort might have been connected to the Skripal case and also to the Syrian chemical attack on Douma, the answer is obviously yes. Both of those stories were front page news at the time and the OPCW was investigating both cases when the GRU operatives were caught red handed.
Read more on the US response to the Skripal case
A joint statement from Theresa May, and her Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte reads as follows:
This attempt to access the secure systems of an international organisation working to rid the world of chemical weapons, demonstrates the GRU’s disregard for the global values and rules that keep us all safe. The GRU’s reckless operations stretch from destructive cyber-activity to the use of illegal nerve agents, as we saw in Salisbury. That attack left four people fighting for their lives and one woman dead. Our action today reinforces the clear message from the international community. We will uphold the rules-based international system, and defend international institutions from those that seek to do them harm.
These revelations were coordinated with an announcement by the UK, Australia and New Zealand, who together accused GRU of being behind a global campaign of “malicious” cyber attacks. The sweeping allegations are based on an assessment prepared by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre. Here’s British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt:
The GRU’s actions are reckless and indiscriminate: they try to undermine and interfere in elections in other countries; they are even prepared to damage Russian companies and Russian citizens. This pattern of behaviour demonstrates their desire to operate without regard to international law or established norms and to do so with a feeling of impunity and without consequences.
Statements from officials in the UK, Australia and New Zealand blamed Russia for, among other things, the hack on the DNC ahead of the 2016 election, an attack on Russian news agencies from 2017, the theft of e-mails from a British television station, operations in Ukraine and the release of stolen documents from the World Anti-Doping Agency.
“Our message is clear – together with our allies, we will expose and respond to the GRU’s attempts to undermine international stability,” the above-mentioned Hunt said.
Hours later, the Department of Justice charged seven GRU officers with hacking anti-doping agencies and sports federations.
Predictably, Maria Zakharova (who, for those unfamiliar, actually looks like she walked out of a Sean Connery-era James Bond flick) denied the claims as only she can.
“[The British allegations] are the product of someone’s rich imagination”, she said at a news briefing. As to the coordinated nature of the revelations, Zakharova told reporters that (and this is a direct quote), “it’s some kind of a diabolical perfume cocktail.”
Write your own jokes.