LONDON/THE HAGUE • Britain, the Netherlands and the United States accused Russia yesterday of running a global campaign of cyber attacks to undermine democracies, including a thwarted attempt to hack into the chemical weapons watchdog while it was analysing a Russian poison used to attack a former spy.
In some of the strongest language used by the West since the Cold War, Britain said Russia was acting like a "pariah state". The accusations were backed by other Western countries including Australia. Canada also said it had been targeted by Russian cyber attacks.
Russia denied what its Foreign Ministry spokesman called a "diabolical perfume cocktail" of allegations by someone with a "rich imagination". But the accusations deepen Moscow's isolation at a time when its diplomatic ties with the West have been downgraded over the poisoning of a former spy in England and it is under US and European Union sanctions over its actions in Ukraine.
The accusations were unveiled as Nato defence ministers gathered in Brussels to present a united front to their Cold War-era foe.
"These are not the actions of a great power; these are the actions of a pariah state," British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told reporters.
EU officials said in a statement that Russia's "aggressive act demonstrated contempt for the solemn purpose" of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The Dutch authorities said they had disrupted an attempt to hack into the Hague-based OPCW in April. At the time, the watchdog was investigating both the poison used to attack former spy Sergei Skripal in Britain and chemical weapons which the West says were used in Syria by Russia's ally President Bashar al-Assad.
Four cases cited by British sources
• British government sources said the National Cyber Security Centre has assessed with "high confidence" that the GRU was "almost certainly" behind the US Democratic National Committee (DNC) hacking in 2016 prior to the United States presidential election. Batches of DNC e-mails were later published by WikiLeaks. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether their release was coordinated with the Trump campaign. Mr Mueller in July this year indicted 12 Russian GRU officers in connection with the DNC attack.
• GRU was also behind BadRabbit ransomware that caused disruptions on the Kiev metro and at an international airport in the Ukrainian port of Odessa last October. The same attack affected Russia's Interfax news agency and the popular Fontanka.ru news site.
• British sources said the third strike resulted in the release of the medical files of global sports stars in August last year. They included tennis' Serena and Venus Williams and Britain's Tour de France winning cyclists Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins. The World Anti-Doping Agency thinks the files' release resulted from a data hack of its doping administration and management system. Russia was arguing at the time that its athletes were being unfairly targeted by anti-doping inspectors.
• The fourth attack accessed multiple accounts belonging to a small United Kingdom-based TV station. Some opposition Russian-language channels operate out of London.
Four Russians arrived in the Netherlands on April 10 and were caught three days later with spying equipment at a hotel located next to the OPCW headquarters, the Dutch military intelligence agency said.
The men had planned to travel on to a laboratory in Spiez, Switzerland used by the OPCW to analyse samples, Dutch Major-General Onno Eichelsheim said. They were expelled to Russia.
The Netherlands released copies of passports of the four men, all in their 30s or 40s.
Earlier yesterday, Britain released an assessment based on work by its National Cyber Security Centre, which cast Russia's GRU military intelligence agency as a cyber aggressor which used a network of hackers to sow worldwide discord.
The GRU, Britain said, was almost certainly behind the Bad Rabbit and World Anti-Doping Agency hacking attacks last year, the hacking of the US Democratic National Committee in 2016 and the theft of e-mails from a British-based TV station in 2015.
"The GRU's actions are reckless and indiscriminate: they try to undermine and interfere in elections in other countries," said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. "Our message is clear - together with our allies, we will expose and respond to the GRU's attempts to undermine international stability."
The GRU, now officially known in Russia by a shorter acronym GU, is also the agency Britain has blamed for sending two men to England to poison former GRU agent Skripal with a chemical weapon sprayed on his door.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis said he agreed with the British and Dutch assessments. Russia must pay a price and a number of response options were available, he said.
Australia and New Zealand also backed the British findings. "By embarking on a pattern of malicious cyber behaviour, Russia has shown a total disregard for the agreements it helped to negotiate," Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
Canada yesterday cited breaches at its centre for ethics in sports and at the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency.
Ottawa said these formed "part of a broader pattern of activities by the Russian government that lie well outside the bounds of appropriate behaviour, demonstrate a disregard for international law and undermine the rules-based international order".
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE