UK blames Russian GRU for cyber attacks – and vows to respond

Britain has accused Russia’s military intelligence agency of a spate of cyber attacks, from the hack against the 2016 US elections to the leaking of top athletes’ medical records.

It is the first time the UK has directly accused the GRU of hostile acts in cyberspace.

The move is part of a government campaign to expose the actions of the shadowy organisation which is also suspected of being behind the Salisbury poisonings.

President Vladimir Putin denies Russia was involved in the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

Yesterday, however, the Russian leader showed his contempt for the former GRU-officer-turned-British agent, calling Mr Skripal a “scumbag”.

Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, said the GRU was responsible for “reckless and indiscriminate” acts.

“This pattern of behaviour demonstrates their desire to operate without regard to international law or established norms and to do so with a feeling of impunity and without consequences,” he said.

“Our message is clear: together with our allies, we will expose and respond to the GRU’s attempts to undermine international stability.”

Image: Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, accuses Russia’s GRU of ‘reckless and indiscriminate acts’

The Foreign Office set out six cyber attacks spanning from 2015 until last year. It said they affected people in many countries and cost national economies millions of pounds.

Among them is the targeting of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid with the hacking and leaking of thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee.

US security officials have already blamed the GRU for this attack, linked to a hacking group called Fancy Bear.

:: What is Russia’s GRU intelligence agency?

The GRU is reputed to be Russia’s largest foreign intelligence agency and reports to the country’s defence ministry.

Another high-profile attack attributed to them by the UK is the 2016 leaking of medical information on a number of high profile athletes.

The penetration of the World Anti Doping Agency’s database came after it triggered a ban on Russian athletics at the Rio Olympics.

The Foreign Office also called out the targeting of an unnamed, small television station based in the UK, with emails accessed and stolen allegedly by the GRU between July and August 2015.

And it highlighted a ransomware attack, called Bad Rabbit, that affected several countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Turkey, Germany and Japan. It impacted the airport in Ukraine and the Kiev Metro.

The two other attacks had previously been attributed to the Russian state by the UK, but not specifically to the GRU.

Setting out its case, an assessment by the national cyber security centre, a part of GCHQ, said with “high confidence” that the GRU was “almost certainly” responsible in five of the six cases.

The Foreign Office named 12 cyber groups that it said were associated with the GRU.

Among the list was the Cyber Caliphate, a group that claimed to be linked to Islamic State. It was behind the 2015 cyber attack on TV5Monde, a French television channel.

The attribution to the GRU comes after Theresa May told parliament last month that she would use all the tools of national security available to her to shine a light on the agency.

Ruslan Boshirov (left) and Alexander Petrov have been named as suspects
Image: Ruslan Boshirov (left) and Alexander Petrov have been named as suspects in the Salisbury poisonings

The prime minister’s strong language was prompted by the attack on the Skripals.

Investigators suspect two serving GRU officers of trying to kill them in March with a novichok nerve agent, an act of chemical warfare that drew international condemnation.

Professor Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, said calling out the actions of the GRU could act as a deterrence.

“We are increasing the cost to Russia,” he said.

“The more we can get out our side of the case and show that it’s based on high levels of analysis the better.”

Professor Chalmers said President Putin’s response to the move would be defiant but he is facing a number of challenges domestically.

“The economy is stagnating and has the potential to suffer a lot more from economic sanctions,” he said.

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Professor Chalmers said it would take time to see if the UK plan works.

“What is clear that if we don’t respond to such attacks, it’s more than likely Russia will continue” its hostile activities, he said.

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