BRUSSELS: Western nations accused Russia’s secretive military intelligence unit of new cybercrimes on Thursday, with Dutch and British officials labeling the GRU “brazen” for allegedly targeting the international chemical weapons watchdog and the investigation into the 2014 downing of a Malaysian Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine.
The GRU’s alleged hacking attempts on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons took place in April and were disrupted by authorities, Dutch Defence Minister Ank Bijleveld said. Four Russian intelligence officers were immediately expelled from the Netherlands, she said.
Speaking about Russia’s hacking attempts into the MH17 crash investigation, she said: “We have been aware of the interest of Russian intelligence services in this investigation and have taken appropriate measures.”
The cascade of condemnation — from the Australian, British and Dutch governments — does more than just point the finger at Moscow. It also ties together a series of norm-shattering spy operations that have straddled the physical world and the digital sphere.
The British ambassador to the Netherlands said that the men caught with spy gear outside The Hague-based OPCW, for example, were from the very same GRU section (Unit 26165) accused by American investigators of having broken into the Democratic National Committee’s email and sowing havoc during the 2016 US presidential election.
The OPCW, in turn, was investigating the poisoning of GRU defector Sergei Skripal in which the nerve agent Novichok was used, a bold operation that British authorities dissected in a minute-by-minute surveillance camera montage last month.
At the same time, Australian and British spies have now endorsed the American intelligence community’s reported attribution of the catastrophic June 2017 cyberattack on Ukraine to the GRU. The malicious software outbreak briefly knocked out cash machines, gas stations, pharmacies and hospitals and, according to a secret White House assessment recently cited by Wired, dealt $10 billion worth of damage worldwide.
The hack and release of sports figures’ medical data in 2016 and the downing of MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 also allegedly carry the GRU’s fingerprints. Dutch investigators said the snoopers nabbed outside the OPCW also appear to have logged into the Wi-Fi networks near the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Malaysian hotels where crash investigators had gathered.
Moscow has issued the latest in a series of denials, but the allegations leveled by Western intelligence agencies, supported by a wealth of surveillance footage and overwhelmingly confirmed by independent reporting, paint a picture of the GRU as an agency that routinely crosses red lines — and is increasingly being caught red-handed.
Moscow has denied the allegations, but Russia’s interests were at stake in both cases: the OPCW was investigating reports that a Soviet-made nerve agent had been used against a Russian ex-spy in England, and Russia has been blamed by some for being involved in shooting down MH17.