Russia dismisses suspected spy hacking as routine trip to The Hague

Sergey Lavrov denies 4 people tried to break into chemical weapons watchdog computer system; investigative group says suspect in UK poisoning is a doctor for Russian intelligence

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov enters a hall during his meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero in Moscow, Russia, Monday, October 8, 2018 (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov enters a hall during his meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero in Moscow, Russia, Monday, October 8, 2018 (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s foreign minister on Monday dismissed accusations made in the Netherlands against suspected Russian spies, saying they were intended to distract public attention from stark divisions between Western nations.

Sergey Lavrov’s comments were a defiant statement that comes amid soaring Russia-West tensions.

Last week, Dutch officials alleged that four agents of Russian GRU military intelligence tried and failed to hack into the world’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

British authorities also accused the GRU of a series of global cybercrimes, and the US Justice Department on Thursday charged seven GRU officers with hacking anti-doping agencies and other organizations.

Commenting on the Dutch allegations, Lavrov insisted that the four Russians were on a “routine” trip to The Hague in April when they were arrested and deported by Dutch authorities.

“There was nothing secret in the Russian specialists’ trip to the Hague in April,” Lavrov said at a briefing after talks with Italian counterpart Enzo Moavero Milanesi. “They weren’t hiding from anyone when they arrived at the airport, settled in a hotel and visited our embassy. They were detained without any explanations, denied a chance to contact our embassy in the Netherlands and then asked to leave. It all looked like a misunderstanding.”

Dutch defense officials on Thursday released photos and a timeline of the GRU agents’ botched attempt to break into the chemical weapons watchdog using Wi-Fi hacking equipment hidden in a car parked outside a nearby Marriott Hotel.

Exterior view of the headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, in The Hague, Netherlands, Friday, May 5, 2017 (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

The OPCW was investigating a nerve agent attack on a former GRU spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in Salisbury, England; Britain has blamed on the Russian government. Moscow vehemently denies involvement.

Photographs released by the Dutch Ministry of Defense showed a trunk loaded with a computer, battery, a bulky white transformer and a hidden antenna. Officials said the equipment was operational when Dutch counterintelligence interrupted the operation.

Lavrov in his remarks didn’t talk about the evidence provided by Dutch authorities, but President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, challenged the Netherlands to provide specific information via official channels.

Asked if the Kremlin was considering reshuffling the leadership of the Defense Ministry and the GRU following the Dutch accusations, Peskov said “that kind of information naturally can’t be the basis for it.”

Lavrov criticized Dutch officials for using what he called “loudspeaker diplomacy” instead of using legal mechanisms to look into the issue. He said Moscow summoned the Dutch ambassador Monday to deliver the message.

Speaking to the media outside the Russian Foreign Ministry building, Dutch Ambassador Renee Jones-Bos said, “We can’t tolerate cyberattacks on international organizations,” noting that Dutch officials made that clear last week.

“We made a very clear signal that this has to stop” Jones-Bos added.

The Foreign Ministry said the Dutch ambassador was told Russia views the assertions in the Netherlands a “provocation” and part of a “propaganda campaign” that has caused “irreparable damage” to bilateral ties.

Russia’s Interfax news agency carried a separate statement from the ministry, which said the technical devices seized from the four men were to be used to test the resilience of the Russian Embassy’s information systems to cyberattacks.

The statement also said Russian envoys regularly have stayed at the Marriott Hotel near OPCW headquarters.

Lavrov, meanwhile, argued that the April incident was “dug up and thrown into the public domain now to help distract attention from difficult issues on the agenda of the EU and NATO.”

Lavrov also alleged that the accusations could also be timed to this week’s meeting of the international chemical weapons watchdog, where Western nations would push for empowering it to name culprits in chemical attacks. Russia strongly opposes that, arguing that only the UN Security Council should have such authority.

Meanwhile investigative group Bellingcat reported Monday that one of the two suspects in the poisoning of an ex-spy in England is a trained doctor who works for GRU and traveled to Britain under an alias.

This undated handout image issued by Bellingcat shows photos of Dr Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin, the man the investigative website have alleged was who travelled to Salisbury under the alias Alexander Petrov, over the years (Bellingcat via AP)

Bellingcat said on its website that the man British authorities identified as Alexander Petrov is actually Alexander Mishkin, a doctor working for the Russian military intelligence unit.

British officials said when they brought charges against two Russians in the March nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter that they believed Petrov was an assumed name.

The other suspect also traveled to Salisbury, England, under an alias — Ruslan Boshirov — and is in fact a decorated Russian agent named Anatoliy Chepiga, Bellingcat reported last month.

The poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian agent who was convicted of spying for Britain, became a major international incident. British authorities said Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were sickened by a Soviet-made nerve agent.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said the attack was likely ordered at the highest levels of the Russia government, an allegation vehemently rejected by Putin.

The Skripals survived after a lengthy hospital stay in intensive care. But the nerve agent killed a British woman, Dawn Sturgess, and seriously sickened her partner. British police have said they think the couple was exposed to the substance in June from traces in the bottle that had contained the Novichok used to poison the Skripals months earlier.

Both suspects have appeared on Russian TV to deny any link to the Salisbury poisonings. They said they went to the city to visit its cathedral.

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