The US government has announced criminal charges against seven Russian intelligence officers, declaring a “lengthy and wide-ranging conspiracy” ordered by the Kremlin to hack into private computers and networks around the world that aimed at a wide range of targets.
The announcement from the justice department’s national security division on Thursday comes after Dutch officials said they had disrupted a Russian cyberattack on the global chemical weapons watchdog.
Four of the officers were charged with targeting the watchdog. All seven of the officers were indicted on cyber-hacking charges linked to the leaking of Olympic athletes drug test data, in an alleged attempt to undermine efforts to tackle Russian doping.
Russia’s GRU military intelligence was blamed for the failed operation in the Netherlands, which allegedly targeted the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and was thwarted by Dutch military intelligence with the help of the UK. The international organization was investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the poisoning of former GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the English city of Salisbury in March.
Officials said the Russians had made unsuccessful attempts to carry out a remote attack on the Porton Down chemical weapons facility in April and on the UK foreign office in March. According to US officials, the Russians also targeted a nuclear power company based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that supplied nuclear fuel to Ukraine.
“It is evident from the allegations in today’s indictment that the defendants believed that they could use their perceived anonymity to act with impunity,” John Demers, the US assistant attorney general for national security, said at a press conference announcing the charges. “In their own countries and on territories of other sovereign nations, to undermine international institutions and to distract from their government’s own wrongdoing.”
“They were wrong. Working together with our partners in nations that share our values, we can expose the truth for the world to see.”
A grand jury in the western district of Pennsylvania indicted seven defendants, all officers in the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), a military intelligence agency of the general staff of the armed forces of the Russian Federation, for computer hacking, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and money laundering.
The indictments were not directly related to the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the US election, US officials said, but encompassed many of the same tactics that earlier this year led to charges against more than a dozen Russian nationals for penetrating Democratic party emails in 2016.
“They evince some of the same methods of computer intrusion and the same overarching Russian strategic goal: to pursue its interests through illegal influence and disinformation operations aimed at muddying or altering perceptions of the truth,” Demers said.
Addressing reporters in Washington, justice department officials described how the Russians targeted athletes and anti-doping agencies as retaliation for Russia being banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics over its state-sponsored athlete doping program.
Russian agents attempted to breach the personal information of approximately 250 athletes from 30 countries who supported the ban on Russian athletes or condemned the country’s doping program, US attorney Scott Brady said, as well as the systems of US and international anti-doping agencies.
The defendants – all Russian nationals and residents – made efforts to remotely hack the desired networks, according to the indictment. When those efforts failed, the defendants and others from GRU’s technical unit traveled to where the targets were physically located. With the help of sophisticated equipment, the hackers were able to penetrate computer networks through wifi networks and transfer that access to conspirators in Russia.
Top Russian officials dismissed the allegations as part of a coordinate effort to smear Moscow.
Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of Russian parliament, said the hacking claims were false and designed to “delegitimize Russia”. .
Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, denounced the accusations as “fantasies”.
The Dutch government expelled four Russian agents while detailing how its authorities worked with counterparts in the UK to thwart the attempted cyber-attack on the OPCW, the chemical weapons watchdog based in The Hague.
In a joint statement, the British prime minister, Theresa May, and her Dutch counterpart, Mark Rutte, said: “This attempt to access the secure systems of an international organisation working to rid the world of chemical weapons demonstrates the GRU’s disregard for the global values and rules than keep us all safe.
“Our action today reinforces the clear message from the international community: we will uphold the rules-based international system, and defend international institutions from those that seek to do them harm.”