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West accuses Russia of global hacking campaign

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Western countries issued coordinated denunciations of Russia for running what they described as a global hacking campaign, targeting institutions from sports anti-doping bodies to a nuclear power company and the chemical weapons watchdog, reported Channel News Asia (Singapore).

In some of the strongest language aimed at Moscow since the Cold War, Britain said Russia had become a "pariah state".

The United States said Moscow must be made to pay the price for its actions. And their allies around the world issued stark assessments of what they described as a campaign of hacking by Russia's GRU military intelligence agency.

Russia denied what its Foreign Ministry spokeswoman called a "diabolical perfume cocktail" of allegations dreamt up 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 ex-spy and while it is under US and EU sanctions over actions in Ukraine.

Britain and the Netherlands accused Russia of sending agents with wifi antennas to the Hague to try to hack into the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) while it was investigating an attack on an ex-spy in England.

The United States indicted seven suspected Russian agents for conspiring to hack computers and steal data to delegitimise international anti-doping organisations and punish officials who had revealed a Russian state-sponsored athlete doping programme.

They were also accused of trying to hack into Westinghouse Electric Co, a nuclear power company that provides atomic fuel and plant designs. The Justice Department said one of the Russians performed reconnaissance of personnel and stole login credentials at the company.

Three of the seven had already been indicted by the special prosecutor investigating allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, which Moscow denies.

The various accusations were announced at briefings around the globe that were held as NATO defence ministers gathered in Brussels to present a united front to their Cold War-era foe.

"This is not the actions of a great power, these are the actions of a pariah state," British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told reporters.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, at a news conference in the Belgian capital, said Russia must pay a price, and a number of response options were available.

EU officials said in a statement Russia's "aggressive act demonstrated contempt for the solemn purpose" of the OPCW.

Australia, New Zealand and Canada were among other countries to issue strongly worded statements backing their allies' findings.

Russian officials portrayed the allegations as part of an anti-Russian campaign intended to entrench Moscow's reputation as an enemy. Accusations against Russia "know no limits", said Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.

Dutch authorities said they had disrupted the attempt to hack into the Hague-based OPCW in April, a time when the watchdog was looking into both the attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Britain and chemical strikes in Syria that the West has blamed on Russia's ally President Bashar al-Assad.

Four Russians arrived in the Netherlands on Apr 10 and were caught three days later with spying equipment at a hotel located next to the OPCW headquarters, the Dutch military intelligence agency said.

The men had planned to travel on to a laboratory in Spiez, Switzerland, used by the OPCW to analyse samples. Instead, they were expelled to Russia.

The Netherlands released copies of passports of the four, which identified them as Alexey Minin, Oleg Sotnikov, Evgenii Serebriakov and Aleksei Morenets, all in their 30s or 40s. Reuters was not immediately able to contact them.

AGGRESSOR
Britain released an assessment based on work by its National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which cast Russia's GRU military intelligence agency as a cyber aggressor which used a network of hackers to sow worldwide discord.

The GRU, Britain said, was almost certainly behind the BadRabbit and World Anti-Doping Agency hacking attacks of 2017, the hack of the US Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2016 and the theft of emails 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," said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. "Our message is clear - together with our allies, we will expose and respond to the GRU's attempts to undermine international stability."

The GRU, now formally known in Russia by a shorter acronym GU, is the agency Britain has blamed for sending two agents to kill Skripal - himself a former GRU agent - with a nerve agent sprayed on his door. Russia says the two men were sightseers who visited Skripal's home town twice on a weekend trip to England.

Skripal, his daughter and a police officer fell seriously ill and a British woman later died from poison her partner found in a discarded perfume bottle.

After the Skripal poisoning, dozens of Western countries launched the biggest expulsion of Russian spies working under diplomatic cover since the height of the Cold War. Moscow replied with expulsions of Westerners.

In a separate case on Thursday, a Norwegian court extended for a second two-week period the detention of a Russian citizen suspected of spying on Norway's parliament.

Norway arrested Mikhail Bochkaryov on Sep 21 as he was about to fly out of the country. Moscow says he is a Russian parliamentary staff member and has demanded Oslo lift the "absurd charges".

Britain said the GRU was associated with a host of hackers including APT 28, Fancy Bear, Sofacy, Pawnstorm, Sednit, CyberCaliphate, Cyber Berkut and Voodoo Bear.

The United States has sanctioned GRU officers including its chief, Igor Korobov, in 2016 and 2018 for attempted interference in the 2016 US election and cyber attacks.

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US, UK and Dutch authorities levied heavy accusations against Russian intelligence officials Thursday, alleging that seven Russians had hacked various agencies, organizations and institutions. The accusations come just one day after the US announced it would share offensive cyberwar technology with NATO allies “if asked.” – reported Sputnik News (Russia).

"We announce an indictment charging seven Russian military officers with violation of several US criminal laws for malicious cyber activities against the United States and its allies," US Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers told reporters Thursday. Four of the accused are allegedly GRU agents, Russian military intelligence, who were previously expelled from the Netherlands, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Alleged targets include the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Westinghouse nuclear power company and the World Anti-Doping Agency, the keepers of drug-testing data on Olympic athletes. Demers also claimed the Russians attacked a Swiss lab that was analyzing the toxic substance believed to have been used to poison the Skripals in Salisbury, UK, earlier this year, and of course he also renewed the perennial accusation of Russia having attempted to sway the US 2016 elections.

The LA Times noted the accusations are backed by digital fingerprints and on-the-ground surveillance of alleged Russian spy teams.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded to the accusations Thursday by saying the US was on a "dangerous path" and that the Trump administration was "poisoning" the atmosphere of US-Russia relations. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said the US was struggling to keep the "old fiction about 'Russian interference into 2016 US elections'" alive, Sputnik reported.

"We regret to see how the US authorities continue to poison the atmosphere of Russia-US relations with new portions of baseless accusations against Russia, which some other NATO countries rush to repeat on orders from Washington," Ryabkov said. "The Western public is being intimidated again with 'Russian hackers,' this time allegedly involved in 'breaking into' computer networks almost all over the world."

US Defense Secretary James Mattis, at a meeting with NATO allies in Brussels, said Russia would "have to be held to account."

"Basically, the Russians got caught with their equipment, people who were doing it, and they have got to pay the piper," Mattis said. He did not elaborate on the nature of that retaliation or response.

The previous day, Mattis promised US allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) the use of its offensive cyberwarfare technology if they so desired.

"We will formally announce that the United States is prepared to offer NATO its cyber capabilities if asked," Katie Wheelbarger, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said Wednesday, Reuters reported.

Wheelbarger also said the US offering its cyber capabilities "sends a message primarily aimed at Russia."

Journalist and author Daniel Lazare told Radio Sputnik's Loud & Clear Thursday that since some of the DOJ's accusations date several years back, the timing of the twin announcements was probably intended to provide a pretext for going on the cyberwar offensive.

But that's dangerous, he noted, because "cyberwar can lead to real war very easily."

"We're seeing a dramatic, dramatic heating up in the international temperature, and cyberwar is turning into a really increasingly important part of that escalation. It's very dangerous," he said. "The US, especially, is being very aggressive."

Lazare noted the "supposedly pro-Russian Trump administration" is being very "aggressive at targeting Russia and trying to mobilize NATO against Russia — and they're probably succeeding."

Lazare focused primarily on the alleged hacking of medical records of nearly 250 athletes from 30 countries, many of whom had been granted exemptions from Olympic rules regarding therapeutic use of drugs. Russia's entire Olympic team was barred from competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this past February, due to extensive and repeated findings by the International Olympic Committee. However, individual Russian athletes were still allowed to compete, just not under the Russian flag. Russian athletes had previously been individually barred from past Olympic games for infractions of the policy. In addition, the IOC stripped Russia of 41 of its Olympic medals retroactively for failed doping tests.

"Maybe the Russians are trying to dig up ammunition to use to counter American charges that they're abusing the rules. It's very hard to say. It's difficult to say how much substance there is to these indictments. All we can say, though, is the US is really leading the charge; it's really being aggressive, and the whole situation is very dangerous. And I have zero confidence in the responsibility or the sobriety of the people who are leading this offensive — or their honesty."

"An indictment that will never come to trial is worth very little," Lazare said, noting that like most other US and UK indictments of Russian intelligence operatives, none of them will likely ever see the inside of a courtroom.

"The Trump administration has announced a huge cyberwar offensive in which they will be much more aggressive than the Obama or Bush II administrations were, in what they say is countering Russian or Chinese threats but will really mean being proactive, to knock them out before they can attack the US, assuming that's even what they intended to do."

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