Moscow denied Thursday its involvement in a plan to hack into the global chemical weapons agency in Holland earlier this year — even though four Russian spies were arrested outside the facility with hacking equipment.
Law enforcement officials in the U.S., U.K. and Holland laid out in excruciating detail Thursday how four operatives from the Kremlin’s military intelligence unit — the GRU — were caught outside the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague in April, armed with a trunk-full of hacking equipment that was pointing at the agency.
Yet Russia came out in full force Thursday to deny the claims.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the claims a “diabolical perfume cocktail” of allegations dreamt up by someone with a “rich imagination.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry called the whole thing “Western spy mania,” “anti-Russian” and a “staged propaganda campaign.”
The Kremlin also deployed the straw man argument of claiming that “any Russian citizen with a mobile is thought to be a spy.” The evidence, however, showed that along with multiple cell phones, the operatives had modified laptops, transmitters, and Wi-Fi antennas in the rented car in which they were caught.
The Foreign Ministry also mocked the claims, asking if it is “necessary to be near the target of your attack?” suggesting hacking is better conducted remotely. This is true in some cases, but as the indictments from the Department of Justice point out, the local hack was only attempted after remote hacking failed.
The Russian Embassy in the U.K. hit out at the British government’s accusation Thursday that the GRU was responsible for a string of global cyber attacks, calling the allegation “irresponsible" and “not backed by any proof.” It’s “another element in an anti-Russian campaign being conducted by the British government,” the embassy added.
However, a technical report published by the U.K.'s National Cyber Security Council Thursday shows similarities in the code used in attacks on the World Anti Doping Agency and Democratic National Congress in order to back up its assertion that the disparate groups identified by security researchers — such as APT 28 and Fancy Bear — are, in fact, all part of the GRU.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said in a statement published Thursday on the ministry’s website that the U.S. was pursuing a “dangerous path” and that the Trump administration was “poisoning” the atmosphere of US-Russia relations.
“Washington is doing its best to prevent the old invention about ‘Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election in 2016’ from finally falling into pieces,” Ryabkov said.
Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev added another layer, posting on Facebook that the latest allegations “confirm that what we are seeing is not a mere accident, but an episode in a massive campaign” against the Kremlin.
The immediate and widespread pushback against the allegations was not unexpected.
“The Kremlin has a playbook for times like this,” Ben Nimmo from the Atlantic Council who is an expert in tracking Russian disinformation, told VICE News. “They’ll insult the critics, twist the facts, accuse the accusers of the same violation, and issue lurid warnings about the terrible consequences.”
But this time around the Russian tactics may not work.
The coordinated denunciation of Russia issued by Western countries Thursday is some of the strongest language used against Moscow since the Cold War.
The Dutch authorities took the unprecedented step of identifying the four Russian GRU operatives, as well as showcasing the huge amount of evidence they have against the four men — including a taxi receipt showing a trip from a GRU office to the airport in Moscow the day prior to the attack in the Hague.
“The challenge for the Kremlin is going to be keeping this up,” Nimmo said. “Beyond the basic denials, they’re going to need to come up with a counter-explanation of what those four men were doing in the Netherlands on diplomatic passports with hacking equipment. That’s quite a communications challenge.”
Cover image: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his joint press conference with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at the State Hermitage Museum on October 3, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)