News Brief

Russia’s GRU Intelligence Agency Named, Shamed and Indicted

Western governments have launched a coordinated legal and public relations offensive against the Russian military’s GRU intelligence agency, in response to what they say is its role in a global campaign of cyber-hacking, attempted assassination and disinformation spreading.

It comes amid growing evidence of a renewed Russian disinformation offensive aimed at deflecting such pressure, with previously debunked claims that the U.S. is involved in a covert biological warfare program in the Caucasus being recycled by Kremlin-controlled media outlets.

In what amounted to a naming and shaming exercise, the Dutch and British governments revealed details of what they said was an attempt by GRU operatives to hack into the Netherlands-based body responsible for restricting the use of chemical weapons, as well as a U.K. government chemical weapons research facility — following allegations of Moscow’s involvement in the attempted poisoning of former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal.

In the United States, the Justice Department announced the indictment of seven GRU operatives in relation to a hacking operation aimed at undermining investigations into Russian doping during the Olympics. By leaking the files of other sports personalities including tennis star Serena Williams, it is alleged, the Russians hoped to sow distrust in anti-doping agencies. They were also accused of trying to hack into a Pittsburgh power company and other U.S. organizations.

Meanwhile, in London, the British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, accused the GRU of carrying out “reckless and indiscriminate cyber-attacks” worldwide, including the hacking of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election campaign, according to the Guardian newspaper. Hunt said the British security services had evidence that this and other operations had been approved by President Vladimir Putin.

The most dramatic revelations emerged from the Netherlands, as Dutch and British officials published photographs and other details of what they said was a GRU operation in April this year to hack into the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

It came just a month after Skripal and his daughter had been poisoned with a suspected nerve agent in the British town of Salisbury — an operation which the GRU is also accused of carrying out.

U.K. officials said that at the time the OPCW had been investigating the Skripal case and a chemical weapons attack in Syria, suggesting that the Russians were trying to cover up evidence of their involvement. The Dutch security services say they caught the Russian military intelligence team red-handed as they attempted to break into the OPCW’s wifi network, using special equipment inside a car parked outside. The Russians were expelled the same day, but their equipment was confiscated — and the Dutch also released pictures of the Russian agents and the passports they traveled on.

“For the GRU to get caught in this way would be considered a pretty bad day,” said a senior British security official quoted in the Guardian. The Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed the hacking accusations as “big fantasies”.

But even before this Western public relations fightback, there were signs the Russian government’s media machine was trying to turn the tables and spread doubt and alarm about U.S. actions.

There has been a surge of reports in the Russian state-controlled media in recent weeks claiming that the U.S.-funded Lugar research lab in Georgia is being used for secret experiments as part of a covert biological weapons program. Georgia lies on Russia’s southern border, and the lab has been a regular target of Kremlin-backed disinformation efforts.

The Tbilisi-based Media Development Foundation, which monitors information influence operations in the region, said “the reemergence of Russian media interest in the Lugar case coincides with charging two Russian citizens by Britain with the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal.”