Following the seemingly state-sanctioned chemical poisoning of the Skripals, alongside the hacking and manipulation of the 2016 US elections, Russia has yet again come under fire: on October 4, Western allies accused Russian intelligence officers of cyberattacks against various organisations around the world. These cyberattacks were targeted at organisations which challenged or exposed either the Kremlin or President Putin.
The Allegations were released in a US Department of Justice indictment on Thursday; the officials in Washington, London and Amsterdam charged seven Russian GRU officers with “international hacking and related influence and disinformation operations” for computer hacking, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and money laundering against organisations, businesses and individuals. “State-sponsored hacking and disinformation campaigns pose serious threats to our security and to our open society,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The indictment found that the goals of the conspiracy was to steal classified information and distribute it to undermine, retaliate against and delegitimise anti-doping organisations who publicly exposed doping in a Russian state-sponsored athlete program. It alleges that the defendants (all Russian nationals and residents) used fake profiles and proxy servers to research victims, send emails, use and monitor malware command and control servers.
This is only the latest in a series of accusations against Russia this year: the previous one dates back to March, when British officials alleged that Russia employed a nerve agent in an attempt to kill Mr Skripal. In the case of previous criminal complaints from the US Justice Department against interference from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, indictments have failed to lead to arrests. Trump’s reluctance in condemning previous events has also had significant influence on this trend of dismissal: in the case of election interference, Trump clearly professed that he was skeptical that the events had effectively even occurred. Instead of addressing the situation, Vice President Mike Pence shifted the blame on China, claiming that “What the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country.” Russia also disregarded the accusations, and a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry called them the result of a “rich imagination.”
This latest indictment appears to constitute a serious roadblock to the achievement of good relations between the two countries. There is no way of anticipating how the situation will develop in the near future; the uncertainty stems from the fact that higher-ups in both Washington and the Kremlin are on side ignoring, and on the other, dismissing the accusations. The formal dismissal of the claims brought forward by the Justice Department by the leading governmental figures will fail to address and resolve problems and potential security risks that might arise as a result of theRussian breach of confidential information through the cyberattack.
The circumstances of the event certainly do make us question what really the contribution of formal “blame techniques” could be on issue-resolution between states. Could it really be an effective method, when states tend to simply argue back and forth and never come to any real agreements? We need real targeted policy commitments: from Russia’s side, there needs to be more transparency on how they conduct themselves in similar situations. The resort to cyberattacks in an attempt to resolve issues that are felt to concern the reputation of the nation, such as doping, would not have been necessary if transparency constituted a key principle in the conduct of Russian politics. The trend of Western countries’ blaming Russian interference would thus perhaps come to a halt altogether.