The United States last week charged two Russian intelligence agents and two criminal hackers with masterminding the 2014 theft of 500 million Yahoo accounts in a move that marks the first time that the US government has criminally charged Russian spies with cyber offenses.
The 47-count Justice Department indictments on Wednesday 15 March included charges of conspiracy, computer fraud and abuse, economic espionage, theft of trade secrets, wire fraud, access device fraud and aggravated identify theft. The charges also paint a picture of the Russian security services as working hand-in-hand with cyber criminals, who helped spies further their intelligence goals in exchange for using the same exploits to make money. Speaking at a press conference to announce the charges, Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord disclosed that the criminal conduct at issue, carried out and otherwise facilitated by officers from an FSB unit that serves as the FBIs point of contact in Moscow on cyber crime matters, is beyond the pale. Russias Federal Security Service (FSB) is the successor to the KGB. McCord further disclosed that the hacking campaign was awarded by the FSB in order to collect intelligence but that the two hackers used the collected information as an opportunity to line their pockets.
The indictment named the FSB officers involved as Dmitry Dokuchaev and his superior, Igor Sushchin, both of whom are in Russia. According to Russian news agency Interfax, Dokuchaev was arrested for treason in December. According to the Justice Department, the alleged criminals involved in the scheme include Alexsey Belan, who is amongst the FBIs most-wanted cyber criminals and was arrested in Europe in June 2013 however he escaped to Russia before he could be extradited to the US. Karim Baratov, who was born in Kazakhstan but also has Canadian citizenship, was also named in the indictment. The Justice Department disclosed that Baratov was arrested in Canada on 14 March. Officials in Toronto have confirmed the arrest. The US does not have an extradition treat with Russia, with McCord stating that she was hopeful that Russian authorities would cooperate in bringing criminals to justice. The US often charges cyber criminals with the intent of deterring future state-sponsored activity.
The charges announced last week are not related to the hacking of Democratic Party emails during the 2016 US presidential election. US intelligence agencies have stated that they were carried out by Russian spy services, including the FSB, in order to help the campaign of Republican candidate Donald Trump.
Yahoo disclosed when it announced the then-unprecedented breach last September, that it believed that the attack was state-sponsored. On Wednesday, the company stated that the indictment unequivocally shows that to be the case.
According to the indictment, in the 2014 breach, at least thirty million of the Yahoo accounts were the most seriously affected, with Belan being able to burrow deep into their accounts and taking user contact lists that were later used for a financially motivated spam campaign. The indictment went on to say that Belan also stole financial information, such as credit card numbers and gift cards. Yahoo had previously stated that about 32 million accounts had fallen victim to the deeper attack, which it said leveraged forged browser cookies to access accounts without the need for a password. According to Wednesdays indictment, FSB officers Sushchin and Dokuchaev also directed Baratov to use the information gained in the Yahoo breach to hack specific targets who possessed email accounts with other service providers, including Google. The incitement charged that when Baratov was successful, Dokuchaev would reward him with a bounty.
In December 2016, Yahoo announced another breach that occurred in 2013 and which affected 1 billion accounts. At the time, Special Agent Jack Bennett of the FBIs San Francisco Division disclosed that the 2013 breach is unrelated and that an investigation of that incident is ongoing. The hacks forced Yahoo to accept a discount of US $350 million in what had been a US $4.83 billion deal to sell its main assets of Verizon Communications Inc.
The charges come amidst a number of controversies relating to alleged Kremlin-backed hacking of the 2016 US presidential election and the possible links between Russian figures and associates of US President Donald Trump, as well as uncertainty about whether President Trump is willing to respond forcefully to aggression from Moscow in cyberspace and elsewhere.
On Tuesday, Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula voted for full independence from Ukraine ahead of a referendum to join Russia. Meanwhile, France has threatened sanctions against Moscow, which could be implemented as early as this week.
Yanukovych Remains Defiant
The latest escalation, in what has developed into Europe’s worst crisis in decades, came moments after ousted pro-Kremlin leader Victor Yanukovych defiantly vowed to return to Kiev from Russia, declaring that he was still the leader of the former Soviet country. Speaking to reporters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, Yanukovych, in what is his first public appearance since February 28, stated “I remain not just the sole legitimate president of Ukraine but also commander-in-chief,” adding “as soon as the circumstances allow – and I am sure there is not long to wait – I will without doubt return to Kiev.”
In light of the upcoming referendum, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that if Moscow failed to respond to Western proposals on the standoff, sanctions against Russia could come as early as this week. On Tuesday, Western officials are also expected to meet in London in order to finalize a list of Russian officials who may face asset freezes and travel restrictions over their role in endangering the sovereignty of Europe’s largest state.
Independence and Referendum
On Tuesday, Crimea’s parliamentary assembly took another dramatic step by issuing a declaration proclaiming the region’s full independence from Kiev rule. The body had earlier voted to actually join Russia, with the latest move appearing to be primarily aimed at creating a legal framework for becoming a part of Russia as a sovereign state.
Crimea has been a tinderbox since Russian forces seized control of the Black Sea peninsula, which has been home to its Black Sea Fleet since the 18th century, with help of Kremlin-backed militias days after Yanukovych fled Ukraine last month in response to three months of deadly unrest. The strategic region’s self-declared rulers are recruiting volunteers to fight Ukrainian soldiers while Russia’s parliament on Tuesday prepared legislation that would simplify the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea after Sunday’s vote. However the pro-European leaders in Kiev have rejected the referendum and are appealing to Western powers for both diplomatic backing and pressure on Moscow to release its troops stronghold on the rugged peninsula of two million people.
NATO Launches Surveillance
Meanwhile NATO announced Monday that it will deploy AWACS reconnaissance aircraft, which will overfly Poland and Romania, as part of alliance efforts to monitor the crisis in Ukraine. The Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) will fly missions from their home base in Geilenkirchen, Germany, where seventeen are housed, and from Waddington in Britain. The AWACS aircraft are one of the most sophisticated command and control vehicles in the NATO armoury, capable of monitoring huge swathes of airspace, with diplomatic sources indicating that the AWACS were routinely deployed and on that count, there was nothing unusual in their use in this case. However a diplomatic source has indicated that it is unusual that the deployment has been announced publicly.
According to a NATO official, the flights “will enhance the Alliance’s situational awareness,” adding “all AWACS reconnaissance flights will take place solely over Alliance territory.” The official also noted “this decision is an appropriate and responsible action in line with NATO’s decision to intensify our on-going assessment of the implications of this crisis for Alliance security.” Flying over Poland and Romania the AWACS planes should be able to see far into Ukraine’s airspace.
As the Ukraine crisis has deepened, with Russian intervention on the Crimean peninsula, former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe have become increasingly nervous at President Vladimir Putin’s apparent willingness to up the ante. The situation risks becoming more difficult if Crimea, which is now controlled by pro-Russian leaders, votes in a March 16 referendum to break all links with Kiev and become a part of Russia. Poland and the Baltic states especially have taken a hard line as events have unfolded and last week, Warsaw called for urgent consultations with its NATO allies on the situation. In response to Putin’s move into Crimea, which is home to a large Russian-speaking population and the Black Sea fleet, the US is sending a dozen F-16 fighter jets and 300 service personnel to Poland as part of a training exercise. Last week, Washington also deployed six additional F-15 fighter jets to step up NATO air patrols over the Baltic states.
World leaders meeting at the G20 Summit in Russia remained divided over military action in Syria. The Syrian crisis, and prospect of military action, has overshadowed the official agenda of the summit, which was intended to focus on the world’s top economies and emerging markets in order to stimulate growth and battle tax avoidance. While talks on Syria dominated the first day of the summit, it was not immediately clear if the leaders would have another chance to discuss the issue on the summit’s second day or if the main session would focus on purely economic issues. What does remain clear is that tensions between the United States and Russia have reached a new low.
Despite not being on the original agenda of the summit, which is hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg, global leaders discussed the Syria crisis over a working dinner on Thursday, which lasted into the early morning hours. However there was no breakthrough during the dinner as leaders, including US President Barack Obama, presented their positions on the Syria crisis. The discussions, which failed to bridge the divisions over US plans which are seeking military action against the Syrian regime, also confirmed the extent of global divisions on the issue. A Kremlin spokesman was quoted as saying that “some states were defending the view the rushed measures should be taken, overlooking legitimate international institutions. Other states appealed not to devalue international law and not to forget that only the UN Security Council has the right to decide on using force.” While a high-ranking source close to the talks indicated that there was a disappointing lack of ambition at the dinner on the Syria issue, noting that Putin as host was keen not to aggravate tensions further, a French diplomatic source highlighted that while discussions indicated a sharp divide amongst the leaders, the overall objective of the dinner “was an exchange between the top world leaders and not to come to an agreement.” Outside of the summit, several Western states share Mr. Putin’s opposition to military action, and after last week’s vote in the British parliament, which resulted in the UK government voting against strikes, France is the only power to have vowed that it will join American intervention if US officials go ahead with military action.
Mr. Putin has emerged as one of the most inflexible critics of military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which has been accused of allegedly using chemical weapons in an attack that was carried out on 21 August. Putin’s comments that any move without the UN’s blessing would be an aggression, remained unchanged throughout the Summit. China also insists that any action without the UN would be illegal.
Meanwhile on Friday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that military strikes could spark further sectarian violence in the country which he said is suffering from a humanitarian crisis “unprecedented” in recent history, adding that “I must warn that ill-considered military action could cause serious and tragic consequences, and with an increased threat of further sectarian violence.” The UN is also appealing for more aid for the estimated two million Syrians who have fled their country, in which another 4.25 million are internally displaced. UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Friday that the UK would provide an additional £52 million (US $80 million) in aid for Syrian, in which much of it will go towards medical training and equipment in order to help those civilians who have been targeted by chemical attacks.
Amidst ongoing debates in the United States pertaining to possible military action against Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned America and its allies against taking one-sided action in Syria. Ahead of the G20 Summit, which is set to begin in Saint Petersburg on Thursday, the Russian President also indicated that he would not exclude Russia from agreeing to a possible US-led military strike on Syria, as long as it was proven that Syria’s regime had carried out the August 21 attack. While the G20 summit is suppose to concentrate on the global economy, it is highly likely that the Syrian crisis will dominate the discussions amongst global leaders.
Speaking during a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press and Russia’s state Channel 1 television, Putin’s remarks come just one day after members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed on a draft resolution backing the use of US military force. According to the draft resolution, the operation would be restricted to a “limited and tailored use of the United States Armed Forces against Syria,” and ban the use of any ground forces. The measure, which will be voted on next week, sets a time limit of sixty days on any operation.
While US President Barack Obama has called for punitive action in response to an alleged chemical attack that was carried out on the outskirts of Damascus on 21 August, President Putin stated on Wednesday that any military strikes without the approval of the United Nations would be a form of “an agreession.” The Russian President further noted that while his country had not ruled out supporting a UN Security Council resolution that would authorize the use of force, it would have to be proved “beyond doubt” that the Syrian goverment used chemical weapons before such a mission would be launched. In relation to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, Putin noted that it was “ludicrous” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Russia, would use chemical weapons at a time when it was gaining ground against the rebels. However the Russian President did specify that “if there is evidence that chemical weapons were used, and by the regular army…then this evidence must be presented to the UN Security Council. And it must be convincing,” adding that Russia would “be ready to act in the most decisive and serious way” if there was clear proof of what weapons were used and who used them but that at the moment, it is “too early” to discuss what Russia would do if America took action without a UN resolution. During the interview, Putin also confirmed that Russia has currently suspended delivering further components of S-300 air defence missile systems to Syria, adding that “if we see steps are taken that violate the existing international norms, we shall think how we should act in the future, in particular regarding supplies of such sensitive weapons to certain regions of the world.
Ahead of next week’s vote in Congress, on whether to back President Obama’s push for military strikes in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared on Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in order to promote the Obama administration’s case. During his discussions, Kerry indicated that there was evidence “beyond any reasonable doubt” that the forces of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime prepared for a chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. He further indicated to senators that while the President was not requesting that America go to war, “he is asking only for the power to make clear, to make certain, that the United States means what we say.” US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and top US military officers Gen. Martin Dempsey also appeared before the Senate panel. While a number of high profile officials, including Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger support Obama’s call for military action in Syria, the latest opinion polls in the US indicate that public opposition with respect to US involvement in the conflict is growing, with six out of ten Americans opposed to missile strikes.
Internationally, France, which is due to debate the issue on Wednesday in Parliament, has also strongly back the US plan for military action. On Tuesday, French President Francois Hollande stated that “when a chemical massacre takes place, when the world is informed of it, when the evidence is delivered, when the guilty parties are known, then there must be an answer.” While Hollande is under no obligation to obtain parliamentary approval for action, with public opinion deeply sceptical of military strikes, many lawmakers have called for a vote on the matter. While UK Prime Minister David Cameron had also backed the military action, the British parliament had voted against a resolution on military action. With the UK against the military action, the US is seeking other allies.
While the world debates possible military action in Syria, the conflict, which began in March 2011, has resulted in more than 100,000 people thought to have died since the uprising aginast President Assad. On Tuesday, the UN refugee agency indicated that more than two million Syrians were now registered as refugees, indicating that a further 4.25 million have been displaced within the country.
Russia – US Relations
After returning to the Kremlin for a third term as president last year, relations between Russia and the US have dramatically deteriorated as the two nations have disagreed over a number of issues which have included the Syrian crisis and human rights. Tensions peaked this summer after Moscow gave asylum to US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, which prompted President Obama to cancel his planned bilateral visit to Moscow ahead of the G20 summit. While Putin did admit that he was disappointed by Obama’s decision, he did note that the move was not a “catastrophe” and that he understood that some of Moscow’s decisions did not sit well within the US administration.
Although no official bilateral meeting is planned to take place between Obama and Putin at the G20 Summit, a White House official indicated on Wednesday that the two presidents are expected “to have an opportunity to speak on the margins of the various meetings of the G20.”