Russia accused of cyber attack on chemical regulator

Dutch ‘captured agents trying to hack watchdog’

Cyber crime. File picture
Cyber crime. File picture

Britain and the Netherlands accused Russia of running a global campaign of cyber attacks to undermine democracies, including a thwarted attempt to hack into the UN’s chemical weapons watchdog while it was analysing a Russian poison used to attack a 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 the US.

Russia denied what its foreign ministry spokesperson 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 an exspy in England and it is under US and EU sanctions over its actions in Ukraine.

The British and Dutch accusations were unveiled as Nato defence ministers gathered in Brussels to present a united front to their Cold War-era foe.

“This is not the action of a great power, these are the actions of a pariah state,” British defence secretary Gavin Williamson said.

US defence secretary Jim 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.

Dutch authorities said they had disrupted an attempt to hack into the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in April.

At the time, the UN watchdog was investigating both the poison used to attack ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Britain and chemical weapons which the West says were used in Syria by Russia’s ally President Bashar al-Assad.

According to a presentation by the head of the Netherlands’ military intelligence agency, four Russians arrived in the Netherlands on April 10 and were caught with spying equipment at a hotel next to the OPCW headquarters.

The four were detained on April 13 and expelled to Russia, Dutch Major-General Onno Eichelsheim said.

They had planned to travel on to a laboratory in Spiez, Switzerland, used by the OPCW to analyse samples.

The Netherlands released copies of passports of the four men, which identified them as Alexey Minin, Oleg Sotnikov, Evgenii Serebriakov and Aleksei Morenets.

Russian military intelligence “is active here in the Netherlands where a lot of international organisations are [based]”, Eichelsheim said.

Earlier on Thursday, 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 discord.

The GRU, Britain said, was almost certainly behind the BadRabbit and World AntiDoping Agency hacking attacks of 2017, the hack of the US Democratic National Committee in 2016 and the theft of e-mails from a UK-based TV station in 2015.

“The GRU’s actions are reckless and indiscriminate – they try to undermine and interfere in elections in other countries,” British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said.

“Our message is clear – together with our allies, we will expose and respond to the GRU’s attempts to undermine international stability.”

Britain has also blamed the GRU for the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal.