Russia has rejected Dutch and British accusations of a series of cybercrimes by Russian intelligence agents as “propoganda”.
The state’s foreign ministry rejected the accusations as a sham, claiming their comments reflect “Western paranoia about the omnipotent Russian cyberspies”. It had earlier branded the allegations part of the West’s “spy mania”.
Russian spies have been accused of involvement in a series of cyber-plots across the globe, prompting the United States to make charges against seven agents.
The UK and the Netherlands made the accusations against the Russian GRU military intelligence agency on Thursday, including attacks against the international chemical weapons watchdog and other international agencies, such as the World Anti-Doping Agency.
In a joint statement, Theresa May and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte condemned the “unacceptable cyber activities” of the GRU and vowed to work to uphold the “rules-based international system”.
Meanwhile in Washington, the US Department of Justice said it had indicted seven suspected GRU officers for “malicious cyber activities” against the US and its allies – including some of those named in connection with the OPCW attack.
The Russian foreign ministry alleged that the accusations could be aimed at creating the “necessary political environment” before the chemical watchdog’s meeting next week, where Western nations could push to empowering the watchdog to name culprits in chemical attacks.
Russia opposes that, arguing that only the UN Security Council should have such authority.
Details of the attempted attack on the OPCW were revealed at an extraordinary joint news conference at the Dutch Ministry of Defence with the British ambassador Peter Wilson.
He said that in the days and weeks which followed the Salisbury attack in March, a group of GRU hackers in Russia known as “Sandworm” had targeted both the Foreign Office and the Defence and Science Technology Laboratory at Porton Down which was investigating the incident.
They were also said to have sent “spear phishing” emails to the headquarters of the OPCW – which was helping the UK authorities to identify the deadly nerve agent used in the attack – in an attempt to compromise its computers.
When that failed, a GRU “close access” team was sent from Russia to the Netherlands to try to penetrate their cyber defences from close quarters.
On April 13, the Dutch security service seized a hired car containing sophisticated hacking equipment the GRU men were using near the OPCW building.
While the Russians were escorted out of the country, investigators uncovered evidence that they had been preparing to travel on to Switzerland to target the OPCW’s laboratory in Spiez.
They also found details of other operations some of the men had been involved in – including the hacking of the Malaysian investigation into the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine and the World Anti Doping Agency (Wada) in Switzerland.
The World Anti-Doping Agency welcomed the US indictment, saying the alleged hackers “sought to violate athletes’ rights by exposing personal and private data – often then modifying them – and ultimately undermine the work of WADA and its partners in the protection of clean sport”.
It said it was “pleased to collaborate” with the investigation and has tightened up security since it was hacked in 2016.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the disclosures were “hard evidence” of the activities of the “unacceptable” activities of the GRU which Britain has previously blamed for the Salisbury attack.
The Dutch authorities – who released CCTV images of the four men arriving at Schiphol Airport – said they had all been travelling on official Russian diplomatic passports.
They were named in them as Alekski Morenets and Evgenii Serebriakov, described as a cyber operators, and Oleg Soktnikov and Alexey Minin, who were said to have provided “humint (human intelligence) support”.
Defence minister Ank Bijleveld said: “The cyber operation targeting the OPCW is unacceptable. Our exposure of this Russian operation is intended as an unambiguous message that the Russian Federation must refrain from such actions.”
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance stood “in solidarity” with the decision by the Dutch and British governments to “call out” Russia for its actions.
“Russia must stop its reckless pattern of behaviour, including the use of force against its neighbours, attempted interference in election processes, and widespread disinformation campaigns,” he said.