Russia has once again been accused of trying to break into the data files of a foreign country or organisation. In a joint press briefing involving the Dutch and UK authorities, the Dutch Foreign Ministry spokeswoman stated that various attacks had been foiled including an attempt to hack into the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in April.
The Hague is home to many international organisations and their various major divisional headquarters and outposts. In this case four Russians were apparently caught in a hotel adjacent to the OPCW with intercept equipment in the room. Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) Chief, Major General Onno Eichelsheim, said they had then planned to travel on to a laboratory in Spiez, Switzerland used by the OPCW to analyse samples. All this was going on at the same time as the samples from the Salisbury attack were being analysed by the OPCW.
Earlier the same day, Britain had released an assessment by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which confirmed the British view that the GRU was behind the Bad Rabbit and World Anti-Doping Agency attacks in 2017, the hacking of the U.S. Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2016, as well as accessing emails from a UK-based TV station in 2015. The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt commented:
“The GRU’s actions are reckless and indiscriminate: they try to undermine and interfere in elections in other countries. Our message is clear – together with our allies, we will expose and respond to the GRU’s attempts to undermine international stability”
The British view is that a number of seemingly random attacks have been carried out by the Russians over the last few years to test their abilities before moving on to the real targets. This would explain some otherwise nonsensical attacks which had previously been unexplained.
Moscow has always denied being involved in cyber warfare and its Foreign Ministry spokeswoman called the most recent accusations a “diabolical perfume cocktail” of allegations by people with a “rich imagination”. That said, Mr Putin has been rather less ambiguous about the Skripal affair, making it clear that he does indeed have strong views about the man, calling Sergie Skripal a “scumbag” and a traitor.
Other countries have provided support to the UK, expelling Russian “diplomats”, and indeed Mr Corbyn is on record as saying the government should take stronger action against the Russians. However, it is hard to see what else the world can do that will not simply drive Mr Putin even further into the corner, thereby raising his status in Russia to whom he is presenting recent events as part of the continuing international conspiracy to supress Russia.
While the events that took place in Salisbury are to be utterly condemned, we should perhaps acknowledge the fact that Russia is somewhat entitled to take a dim view of Sergei Skripal. He was a spy who betrayed his own country. Here in Britain we still vilify the likes of Philby, Burgess and Maclean who did so much damage to UK interests from WW2 up to the 1950s. They were later joined by Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross and the group became known as the Cambridge Five, although the final number of spies recruited by the Soviets is believed to be much larger.
Some have suggested Cairncross’ role might have been less than that of the others, but there is evidence to suggest that he was in fact the infamous “Fifth Man” of the group. In their book “KGB, The Inside Story”, Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky claim that:
“The most important agent talent spotted by Blunt was the Fifth Man, the Trinity undergraduate John Cairncross. Together with Philby, Burgess, Blunt and Maclean, he is remembered by the Center (Moscow KGB Headquarters) as one of the Magnificent Five, the ablest group of foreign agents in KGB history. Though Cairncross is the last of the five to be publicly identified, he successfully penetrated a greater variety of the corridors of power and intelligence than any of the other four.”
Regardless, the betrayal of one’s country is still viewed as particularly vile crime. Take the example of Edward Snowden who released details of US and its Allies’ intelligence files to Wikileaks, before heading for Moscow. It would be hard to imagine the US administration being any less angry about Mr Snowden than Russia might be about Mr Skripal; it’s just that most countries in the West have learned to temper their actions to reflect the slightly more modern and rather less cruel world in which we think we would like to live.