Dutch defence minister Ank Bijleveld and British ambassador to the Netherlands Peter Wilson. Picture: REUTERS
Dutch defence minister Ank Bijleveld and British ambassador to the Netherlands Peter Wilson. Picture: REUTERS

London/The Hague -Britain and the Netherlands accused Russia of running a global campaign of cyber attacks to undermine Western democracies, including what the Dutch government described as an attempt to hack into the UN chemical-weapons watchdog.

Moscow denied what its foreign ministry spokeswoman called a "diabolical perfume cocktail" of allegations by someone with a "rich imagination".

But the accusations will deepen Moscow’s isolation at a time when its diplomatic ties with the West have been downgraded over the poisoning of a spy in Britain and it is under US and European sanctions over its actions in Ukraine.

Dutch authorities said they had disrupted an attempt to hack into the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in April. At the time, the UN watchdog was investigating the poison used to attack a former spy in Britain and chemical weapons which the West says were used in Syria by Russia’s ally President Bashar al-Assad.

Dutch Defence Minister Ank Bijleveld called on Russia to cease activities aimed at "undermining" Western democracies.

According to a presentation by the head of the Netherlands’ military intelligence agency, four Russians arrived in the Netherlands on April 10 and were caught with spying equipment at a hotel next to the OPCW headquarters.

The four were detained on April 13 and expelled to Russia, said Maj-Gen Onno Eichelsheim of the Netherlands.

The four had planned to travel to a laboratory in Spiez, Switzerland used by the OPCW to analyse samples, he said.

Russian military intelligence "is active here in the Netherlands ... where a lot of international organisations are (based)," Eichelsheim said.

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 that used a network of hackers to sow worldwide discord.

The GRU, Britain said, was almost certainly behind the BadRabbit and World Anti-Doping Agency attacks of 2017, the hack of the US Democratic National Committee in 2016 and the theft of e-mails from a UK-based TV station in 2015.

"The GRU’s actions are reckless and indiscriminate: they try to undermine and interfere in elections in other countries," said British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt. "Our message is clear — together with our allies, we will expose and respond to the GRU’s attempts to undermine international stability."

The GRU, now officially known in Russia by a shorter acronym GU, is also the agency Britain has blamed in the past for sending two agents to England to poison former spy Sergei Skripal with a chemical weapon sprayed in his door.

Skripal, his daughter and a police officer fell seriously ill; a woman later died after her partner found the poison in a discarded perfume bottle.

Russia says the two men Britain blames for the attack were tourists who twice visited Skripal’s home town during a weekend trip to England, a story Britain says is so far-fetched as to prove Moscow’s culpability.

After the Skripal poisoning, dozens of Western countries launched the biggest expulsion of Russian spies working under diplomatic cover since the height of the Cold War. Moscow replied with tit-for-tat expulsions of Westerners.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a former KGB spy, said on Wednesday that Skripal, a GRU officer who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain’s MI6 spy service, was a "scumbag" who had betrayed Russia.

Britain said the GRU was associated with a host of hackers including APT 28, Fancy Bear, Sofacy, Pawnstorm, Sednit, CyberCaliphate, Cyber Berkut, Voodoo Bear and BlackEnergy Actors.

The US sanctioned GRU officers including its chief, Igor Korobov, in 2016 and 2018 for attempted interference in the 2016 US election and for various cyber attacks.

Australia and New Zealand backed the United Kingdom’s findings on the GRU.

Reuters

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