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Russia hits out at UK support for US sanctions over hacking

Andrew Roth in Moscow
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Vladimir Gerdo/Tass</span>
Photograph: Vladimir Gerdo/Tass

Russian diplomats have lashed out at the UK for joining the US in condemning Russia’s international cyber-espionage efforts, including elections interference and the SolarWinds hack.

The UK ambassador to Russia, Deborah Bronnert, met Russian diplomatic officials at the foreign ministry in Moscow on Friday, hours after the Russian embassy in London called the UK’s release of details on hacking by Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, as “nothing more than an attempt to play along with the USA”.

The embassy said Bronnert had not been summoned and that the meeting had been planned in advance. Bronnert left the ministry after an hour without answering questions from journalists.

In early 2020, malicious code was sneaked into updates to a popular piece of software called Orion, made in the US by the company SolarWinds, which monitors the computer networks of businesses and governments for outages.

That malware gave hackers remote access to an organisation’s networks so they could steal information. Among the most high-profile users of the software were US government departments including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state department, and the justice department.

Described by the Microsoft president, Brad Smith, as “the largest and most sophisticated attack the world has ever seen", US intelligence agencies have accused Russia of launching the attack.

SolarWinds, of Austin, Texas, provides network monitoring and other technical services to hundreds of thousands of organisations around the world, including most Fortune 500 companies and government agencies in North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Its compromised product, Orion, is a centralised monitoring tool that looks for problems in an organisation’s computer network, which means that breaking in gave the attackers a “God view” of those networks.

Neither SolarWinds nor US cybersecurity authorities have publicly identified which organisations were breached. Just because a company or agency uses SolarWinds as a vendor does not necessarily mean it was vulnerable to the hack.

Kari Paul and Martin Belam

The Foreign Office summoned Russia’s ambassador in London on Thursday to express its concern over Russia’s “malign behaviour” and express support for US sanctions announced by the Biden administration. The Russian embassy responded that its critics had “met their latest failure in ensuring their own cybersecurity and according to their habit have tried to put the blame on Russia”.

Russia has extended a flight ban to the UK until 1 June, ostensibly because of fears over the UK coronavirus strain, despite an aggressive British vaccination programme in which nearly half the population have now received their first dose. Less than 10% of Russians have received their first jab of Sputnik V or any other vaccine. Russia suspended the flights last December.

Russia recently instituted a coronavirus ban on flights to and from Turkey, a move whose timing was suspected to be partially motivated by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s meeting with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and discussions of arms sales to one of Russia’s most bitter rivals.

The strongest reactions remained targeted at the US, which sanctioned cybersecurity companies and suspected Russian disinformation outlets, and banned US financial institutions from buying newly issued rouble bonds. Russian legislators, diplomats and even a spy chief have accused the US of playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship with Russia.

On Friday the Kremlin press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said the US sanctions did not threaten Russia’s economy and that the “efficiency of our economic wing has been recognised internationally, and we see no reasons to doubt their efficiency”.

The rouble fell before the announcement of US sanctions but posted gains once they were revealed to be limited in scope. One analyst called the measures “largely a signal exercise” to show that Joe Biden was negotiating from a position of strength.

Russia has not yet retaliated against the US sanctions, although Peskov hinted at future expulsions and sanctions, saying that Russia’s response would be based on the “principle of reciprocity”. On Friday he said the response would “entirely depend” on the decision of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Earlier, Sergei Naryshkin, the head of the SVR, Russia’s equivalent to MI6, called the sanctions an “unfriendly step, which in my opinion is also poorly considered”. He said it would contribute to the “destruction of international stability”.

US intelligence and the British spy agency GCHQ on Thursday attributed the SolarWinds hack for the first time to the SVR. GCHQ also accused the agency of targeting diplomatic and military institutions in Nato countries since 2011 and research institutes since 2015.

Peskov gave more measured comments than many of the angrier responses given by the Russian establishment, calling the sanctions “mild”.

“You know that President Putin has spoken about the reasonableness of forging, normalising and de-escalating relations [with the United States],” Peskov said. “It is really a positive thing that the two presidents see eye to eye on this.”