The Dutch defence minister has said the Netherlands disrupted a Russian hacking attack and expelled four Russian intelligence officers.
In April, authorities disrupted an attempt by Russian intelligence agents to hack the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Defence Minister Ank Bijleveld said at a news conference in the Hague.
Bijleveld called on Russia to cease its cyber activities that aim at “undermining” Western democracies.
“The Dutch government finds the involvement of these intelligence operatives extremely worrisome,” Bijleveld said on Thursday, adding: “Normally we don’t reveal this type of counter-intelligence operation.”
This comes as the United Kingdom accused Kremlin spies 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.
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 Brussels.
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.
Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan, speaking from London, said Thursday’s reaction is notable.
“Most, if not all, advanced intelligence agencies engage in hacking,” he said. “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”.
GRU ‘cyber agression’
Four Russians arrived in the Netherlands on April 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, Dutch Major-General Onno Eichelsheim said. They were expelled to Russia.
The Netherlands released copies of passports of the four men, which identified them as Alexey Minin, Oleg Sotnikov, Evgenii Serebriakov and Aleksei Morenets, all in their 30s or 40s.
Earlier on Thursday, 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, now officially known in Russia by a shorter acronym GU, is also the agency Britain has blamed for sending two men to England to poison former GRU agent Sergei Skripal with a chemical weapon sprayed on his door.
Later on Thursday, the US Justice Department charged seven Russian intelligence officers with hacking anti-doping agencies and other organisations.
Meanwhile, NATO defence ministers gathered in Brussels presented a united front to their Cold War-era foe in response to the British and Dutch accusations.
US Defense 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.
“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 Natacha Butler, reporting from the Belgian capital, said: “The accusations by the UK and the Netherlands against Russia have really been met here by a very serious tone, a very serious response.”
“What experts will tell you that NATO has perhaps focused a little bit too much on cyber defence rather than offensive measures and Defence Secretary James Mattis said that what the US is going to do is to offer some of its offensive cyber capabilities to the alliance to try and strengthen them in this domain and stop any future attacks,” she added.
In separate statements, Australia and New Zealand also backed the British findings.