London: The UK on Thursday accused Russian cyber intelligence officers of trying to hack into its Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) network, as the European Union revealed that Dutch military intelligence had foiled a Kremlin cyber attack on the global chemical weapons watchdog.
As part of the joint set of revelations in the Netherlands, Peter Wilson, the UK ambassador at The Hague, said intelligence officers from Russia's GRU tried to compromise Foreign Office systems with an attack in March.
He revealed that the online phishing attack took place soon after the deadly Novichok nerve agent poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English town of Salisbury.
"In March, straight after the Salisbury attack, the GRU attempted to compromise UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office computer systems via a spear phishing attack, Wilson said in a statement. The GRU can only succeed in the shadows. We are all agreed that where we see their malign activities, we must expose it to the light together, he added.
In a statement alongside Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, British Prime Minister Theresa May said the "joint operations" had shone "further light on the unacceptable cyber activities of the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU".
May said the attempted hack of the global chemicals watchdog Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) demonstrated the GRU's "disregard for the global values". "Our action today reinforces the clear message from the international community. We will uphold the rules-based international system, and defend international institutions from those that seek to do them harm, the joint statement noted.
Dutch security services caught four GRU operatives and immediately deported them to Russia but retained their technical equipment, according to UK media reports. The team of four GRU officers travelling on official Russian passports entered the Netherlands on April 10. On April 13, they parked a car carrying specialist hacking equipment outside the headquarters of the OPCW in The Hague. At that point the Dutch counter-terrorism officers intervened to disrupt the operation and the four GRU officers were ordered to leave the country.
The Dutch authorities released pictures of the Russian agents as they arrived at Schiphol airport. The UK government has also accused the GRU of being behind four high-profile cyber-attacks whose targets included firms in Russia and Ukraine; the US Democratic Party; and a small TV network in the UK.
The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has identified that a number of cyber actors widely known to have been conducting cyber attacks around the world are, in fact, the GRU. These attacks have been conducted in flagrant violation of international law, have affected citizens in a large number of countries, including Russia, and have cost national economies millions of pounds, an FCO statement said on Thursday.
UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt attacked the GRU's actions as reckless and indiscriminate. They try to undermine and interfere in elections in other countries; they are even prepared to damage Russian companies and Russian citizens. 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.
Russia has called the latest set of accusations a "diabolical cocktail" of allegations as well as a "rich fantasy of our colleagues from Britain". In a sign of a growing Western alliance over the issue, a statement from North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) called on Russia to halt its "reckless pattern of behaviour, including the use of force against its neighbours".