The US has charged seven Russian military intelligence officials over the alleged hacking of doping agencies and other organisations, as part of a joint crackdown with Western allies on a series of major cyberattacks attributed to Moscow.
The US Justice Department indicted the officers on Thursday for conspiring to hack computers and steal data in a bid to delegitimise international anti-doping organisations and expose officials who revealed a Russian state-sponsored athlete doping programme.
John Demers, US assistant attorney general for National Security, confirmed the seven agents were indicted in connection to the attack on the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), on football’s governing body FIFA and the US and global anti-doping agencies, and on the US nuclear energy company Westinghouse among others.
The indictments also include charges of money laundering, using virtual currencies like bitcoin, wire fraud and identify theft.
“Nations like Russia and others that engage in malicious and norm-shattering cyber and influence activities should understand the continuing and steadfast resolve of the United States and its allies to prevent, disrupt and deter such unaccountable conduct,” Demers told a news conference in Washington, DC.
The defendants, all Russian nationals and residents, were named as Aleksei Sergeyevich Morenets, 41, Evgenii Mikhaylovich, Serebriakov, 37, Ivan Sergeyevich Yermakov, 32, Artem Andreyevich Malyshev, 30, and Dmitriy Sergeyevich Badin, 27, and Oleg Mikhaylovich Sotnikov, 46, and Alexey Valerevich Minin, 46.
Yermakov, Malyshev, and Badin were among the 12 GRU officers indicted in July this year by special counsel Robert Mueller over alleged interference in the US polls in 2016.
“These seven defendants are charged with a pervasive campaign of hacking, stealing private and sensitive information and publishing that information to retaliate against Russian detractors and sway public opinion in Russia’s favour,” said Scott Brady, US attorney for the Western District of Pensylvannia.
The indictments were announced hours after Dutch authorities said they had thwarted an attempt by Russian intelligence agents to hack into the global chemical weapons watchdog, the OPCW, in April, expelling four Russian agents.
The US charges also came after the United Kingdom accused Russia’s GRU military agency of directing a host of cyber attacks aimed at undermining Western democracies by sowing confusion in everything from sports to transport and the 2016 US presidential election.
In a news conference in The Hague, Dutch Defence Minister Ank Bijleveld called on Russia to cease its cyber activities that aim at “undermining” Western democracies.
Meanwile, Britain’s Defence Minister Gavin Williamson said Moscow’s “reckless and indiscriminate” attacks left it isolated in the international community.
“This is not the actions of a great power, this is the actions of a pariah state and we’ll continue working with allies to isolate, make them understand they cannot continue to conduct themselves in such a way,” Williamson told reporters in the Belgian capital, Brussels, during a NATO meeting.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he agreed with the British and Dutch assessments.
“I would ask anyone here is anyone surprised they would attack that organisation (OPCW), I think not,” Mattis said.
“The GRU cyber attack that has been revealed on the OPCW is the latest of world-wide pattern of reckless and irresponsible behaviour from Moscow.”
Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan, reporting from the British capital, London, said: “Most, if not all, advanced intelligence agencies engage in hacking.”
“But it seems today that what we’re seeing is a coordinated campaign against Russia specifically because the activities that Russia has been engaging in go far beyond what in normal intelligence circles would be regarded as acceptable”.
Russia on Thursday rejected British accusations its spies were behind global cyber attacks, saying the allegations were unworthy and part of a disinformation campaign designed to damage Russian interests, the TASS news agency reported.
Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a news briefing that the accusations were the product of someone with a “rich imagination”.
“It’s some kind of a diabolical perfume cocktail [of allegations],” TASS quoted Zakharova as telling reporters.
“The vivid imagination of our colleagues from the UK has no boundaries indeed […] it’s undignified for the country, which pretends to play one of the leading roles in the world,” she said.
GRU stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate, Russia’s military intelligence agency which is one of Moscow’s three spy agencies along with the FSB security service and the SVR foreign intelligence agency.
London has also accused two of GRU’s officers of poisoning former double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the British city of Salisbury in March, using a perfume bottle containing a powerful nerve agent.
Andrew Tsonchev, a cyber security consultant at Darktrace Industrial, an Artificial Intelligence cyber security company, said the “range and scope of the alleged attacks were noteworthy”.
“They are not limited to any one sector or any one particular kind of target, it’s the full range of attacks,” he told Al Jazeera in an interview from London. “What’s interesting here is the diversity and comprehensivity of these attacks.”