Dutch defence minister Ank Bijleveld at a news conference in The Hague, Netherlands, October 4 2018. REUTERS/PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW
Dutch defence minister Ank Bijleveld at a news conference in The Hague, Netherlands, October 4 2018. REUTERS/PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW

London —Dutch authorities, helped by the UK, foiled a Russian cyber attack on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) as it probed the alleged use by Kremlin spies of a deadly nerve poison on British soil.

Four Russian agents from the GRU military-intelligence agency and carrying diplomatic passports were apprehended and expelled in the hacking attempt, Dutch defence minister Ank Bijleveld said in a briefing in The Hague. In addition to targeted e-mail and online efforts to breach systems, they were caught conducting “close-access attacks” using equipment concealed in the trunk of their rented Citroen to disrupt computer networks at the OPCW, according to UK officials.

Coming just hours after the UK blamed the Kremlin for a spate of “reckless and indiscriminate” cyber attacks, including on the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 US presidential campaign, the latest allegations further escalate tensions between Russia and the West. The UK and US have imposed sanctions on Russia over the cases and British officials said the new allegations are likely to lead to calls for new restrictions.

“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 that keep us all safe,” UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Mark Rutte, her Dutch counterpart, said in a joint statement. US authorities are expected to announce related charges later Thursday, according to Dutch officials.

The expelled agents were also suspected of attempting to hack into foreign investigations into the 2014 downing of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine — an attack that’s been blamed on Russia — an International Olympic Committee meeting on Moscow’s alleged state-sponsored doping programme.

“This was the GRU trying to clean up Russia’s own mess,” UK ambassador to the Netherlands Peter Wilson told a briefing in the Hague, citing the efforts to cover up the Kremlin’s role in the doping scandal and the use of the nerve agent.

Russia’s embassy to the Netherlands dismissed the allegations as “disinformation,” according to the state-run Tass news agency. A senator from the ruling party said Russia would respond to the expulsions on a tit-for-tat basis.

The UK’s relations with Russia are at their worst since the height of the Cold War in the 1970s. British police believe two Russian GRU agents, using the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, sprayed the weapons-grade nerve poison Novichok on a door handle at the home of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal on March 4 in Salisbury, southern England.

The attack left Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, critically ill. Salisbury resident Dawn Sturgess, who was later exposed to the same nerve agent carried into the UK in a counterfeit perfume bottle, died in July.

Russia denies any involvement in the Skripal attack, which led to a mass expulsion of diplomats by the UK and its western allies and the imposition of sanctions by the US. President Vladimir Putin this week denounced Skripal as a “scumbag” and a “traitor.”