Putin Tries to Excuse the System He Built in Russia

Vladimir Putin, president of Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a news conference following the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summits in Ufa in 2015. Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

The 2016 U.S. presidential election changed everything. Since then, Russia has been accused of meddling and “hacking” the democratic process every time a major Western country holds a vote, from independence referendums to presidential elections. The United Kingdom saw Russian meddling during the Brexit referendum, France said the Kremlin used Facebook to spy on President Emmanuel Macron during his campaign, and Spain believes Moscow influenced the independence vote in Catalonia.

The FBI and other U.S. federal agencies investigated Russian involvement in the U.S. vote. According to a report released in January by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Russia sought to undermine “public faith in the U.S. democratic process,” and aid Donald Trump in becoming president. The report contains some declassified evidence, although the key points are still a secret.

“They have not let on any technical details yet,” Aleksey Raevsky, a Russian cybersecurity expert and CEO of Zecurion, a data loss prevention software company, told The Globe Post. “We also do not know to what extent election in different countries are automated so it is hard to tell if all these influences are even possible technically.”

Dozens of journalistic investigations have followed the ODNI report. Last month, BuzzFeed published an article revealing that the Russian Foreign Ministry sent 60 money transfers to its embassies around the world with a note that they were intended “to finance [the] election campaign of 2016.”

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova reacted several hours later, posting on Facebook that the money was meant to finance overseas voting in the Russian parliamentary elections of that year. Ms. Zakharova added that BuzzFeed did not contact the foreign ministry or the Russian embassy in the U.S. regarding the purpose of the transfers.

However, she did not mention that BuzzFeed unsuccessfully tried to get both the ministry and embassy to comment on the accusations.

Fancy Bear goes global

According to the FBI and Senate and House Intelligence Committees, which are conducting their own investigations, Russian President Vladimir Putin is believed to have ordered – or at least approved – the Russian measures. Secondly, Mr. Trump’s campaign officials, including campaign manager Paul Manafort, collaborated with Kremlin agents during the election.

The Kremlin is also said to have organized the release of a trail of unsavory documents about Mr. Trump’s opponent, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, part of which involved hacking her associates’ email accounts.

The hacker persona Guccifer 2.0 and the cyber espionage group Fancy Bear were supposedly created or directed by Russian agents to cover the Kremlin’s interference with the election. The hackers are accused of being associated with the Russian military intelligence agency GRU.

Guccifer 2.0 released leaks from Democratic National Committee just during the election campaign. Fancy Bear is accused of hacking the White House and NATO in 2015, along with:

  • Mr. Macron’s campaign (2017) and French television network TV5Monde (2015)
  • German parliament (2014) and parliamentary election (2016)
  • World Anti-Doping Agency (2016) and International Association of Athletics Federations (2017)
  • Norwegian and Dutch special agencies and Dutch ministries (2017)
  • Ukrainian artillery (2014-2016)
  • Numerous financial institutions (2015)

“There is nothing more ephemeral than a group of hackers. Usually such unions are creating to implement certain actions and as soon as they are done the union is disbanded. I think you can blame something on a particular hacker group only after they have admitted their crimes,” Mr. Raevsky said.

“You see: everything done by computers can be hacked,” Mr. Raevsky explained. “But any important data including election results must be copied and checked repeatedly. As for campaigns to discredit unfavorable candidates, such as Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails, it is up to political scientists to decide how effective they were.”

Ukraine blamed Russia for creating the ransomware Petya which attacked Ukrainian state services and companies along with hundreds of others worldwide. The FBI accused the Kremlin of hacking the Qatar News Agency and planting “fake news” to provoke a regional political crisis. Italy suspected Moscow broke into its Ministry of Foreign Affairs emails. And the U.S. Department of Justice said pro-Putin hackers have attacked Russian opposition leaders and independent journalists.

“These attempts were pretty effective,” Stanislav Belkovsky, a Russian political analyst, told The Globe Post. “I do not think Putin tried to help Mr. Trump or other candidates in other countries won elections. He aimed to show how unstable democratic institutes are, to discredit elections themselves, to sow chaos. And he succeeded.”

Russia is often accused of abandoning democracy. Mr. Belkovsky thinks the Kremlin has tried to demonstrate that democracy is not working.

Kaspersky Lab banned in the U.S.

It looks like not only Fancy Bear and other hackers acted in Kremlin’s best interests. Kaspersky Lab, an international cybersecurity provider based in Moscow, occasionally obtained secret documents from the U.S. National Security Agency, revealing sources of its malware. Moreover, the Federal Security Service of Russia has ordered the company’s software multiple times.

Eugene Kaspersky, the founder of Kaspersky lab, said he deleted all of the NSA files himself. He added that FSB software was only meant to “actively protect” the service from DDoS-attacks. Nevertheless, in just the few months, Kaspersky Lab lost its biggest customer – the U.S. government offices.

The company started an internal trawl after being accused of searching for files with the keywords “top secret” on its American customers’ computers. In November, spokespeople for the company said in a statement, “There is no evidence of Kaspersky Lab associates ever trying to seek documents with labels ‘top secret’ or ‘confidential’ on purpose.”

Mr. Raevsky thinks “it never smokes without fire.”

“All I can say is that any IT company in the world is very unlikely to tell about any espionage collaboration with any government because it will ruin this company’s business reputation. And it is actually happening right now to Kaspersky Lab,” he said.

Russian Officials Deny Everything

From where Russian officials stand, there is no proof of any Kremlin or military involvement in foreign hacking. “We are experiencing serious fatigue from these charges,” Mr. Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said as quoted by Interfax. “From our point of view these allegations are absolutely unsubstantiated.”

These words – “as always there is no proof” – have become popular with Russian state television and Mr. Putin’s supporters. Every time news of a new American investigation into Russian interference appears, there are hundreds of comments on social media sites and news stories that there is “no proof.”

“Vladimir Putin is currently trying to excuse the system he built in Russia. I may not sound politically correct but they say if you’ve got an ugly wife you have to prove everybody’s wife is ugly,” Mr. Belkovsky explained.

The most outstanding recent accusation is Catalonia’s independence vote. In November, three Spanish ministers claimed that there is a “Russian trace” in the Catalonia crisis. They also said there were large amounts of pro-independence posts in social media coming from Russia.

Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov called the claims “fried sensational hysteria.” “Only countries unable to solve their internal problems do such things to distract their voters,” state-run news agency RIA Novosti quoted Mr. Lavrov as saying.

No country has disclosed technical evidence of Russian hackers meddling in their democratic processes.

“I am sure hackings took its place,” Mr. Belkovsky said. “Russia has showed the world that involving in democratic processes is always an option. However I do not think other countries are likely to do the same. Some marginal countries may want to but they don’t have recourse. And countries which have needed resources do not have such intentions. This is Russia’s invention and as a citizen of Russia I am proud and ashamed at the same time.”