The West on Thursday unleashed an onslaught of new evidence and indictments accusing Russian military spies of hacking so widespread that it seemed to target anyone, anywhere who investigates Moscow’s involvement in an array of criminal activities — including doping, poisoning and the downing of a plane.
Russia defiantly denied the charges, lashing back with allegations that the Pentagon runs a clandestine US biological weapons program involving toxic mosquitoes, ticks and more.
The nucleus of Thursday’s drama was Russia’s military intelligence agency known as the GRU, increasingly the embodiment of Russian meddling abroad.
In the past 24 hours: US authorities charged seven officers from the GRU with hacking international agencies; British and Australian authorities accused the GRU of a devastating cyberattack last year on Ukraine, the e-mail leaks that rocked the US 2016 election and other damaging hacks; and Dutch officials alleged that GRU agents tried and failed to hack into the world’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The ham-handed attempted break-in — involving hacking equipment in the trunk of a car and a trail of physical and virtual clues — was the most stunning operation revealed on Thursday. It was so obvious that it almost looked like the Russians did not care about getting caught.
“Basically, the Russians got caught with their equipment, people who were doing it, and they have got to pay the piper. They are going to have to be held to account,” US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in Brussels, where he was meeting with NATO allies.
Mattis said the West has “a wide variety of responses” available.
British Ambassador to the Netherlands Peter Wilson said the GRU would no longer be allowed to act with impunity.
Calling Russia a “pariah state,” British Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson said: “Where Russia acts in an indiscriminate and reckless way, where they have done in terms of these cyberattacks, we will be exposing them.”
Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the US is taking a “dangerous path” by “deliberately inciting tensions in relations between the nuclear powers,” adding that Washington’s European allies should also think about it.
While the accusations expose how much damage Russia can do in foreign lands, through remote hacking and on-site infiltration — they also expose how little Western countries can do to stop it. Russia is already under EU and US sanctions, and dozens of GRU agents and alleged Russian trolls have already been indicted by the US, but will likely never be handed over to face US justice.
Still, to the Western public, Thursday may have been a pivotal day, with accusations so extensive, and the chorus of condemnation so loud, that it left little doubt of massive Russian wrongdoing. A wealth of surveillance footage released by Western intelligence agencies was quickly and overwhelmingly confirmed by independent reporting.
Russia denied everything.
Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said the accusations were fake and intended to “delegitimize” a resurgent Russia.
The West has picked up the GRU as “a modern analogue of the KGB which served as a bugaboo for people in the West during the Cold War,” he said.
Russia countered with accusations of its own: The Russian Ministry of Defense unveiled complex allegations that the US has a clandestine biological weapons lab in the country of Georgia as part of a network of labs on the edges of Russia and China that flout international rules.
Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon called the accusations “an invention” and “obvious attempts to divert attention from Russia’s bad behavior on many fronts.”
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