London has summoned the Russian ambassador, according to the British Foreign Office, while the US Department of Justice has announced charges against two Russian citizens, including a Russian security service (FSB) agent. The United Kingdom and the United States claimed on Thursday to have uncovered attempts at Russian cyber interference in British politics, including during the 2019 election.
"Russia's attempts to interfere in British politics are absolutely unacceptable and seek to threaten our democratic processes," said British Foreign Secretary and former Prime Minister David Cameron. "Despite their repeated efforts, they have failed," he added.
We will not stand for interference in our democracy.
Foreign Secretary @David_Cameron on the UK sanctioning Russian operatives aiming to interfere in UK politics. ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/XnbAWf0Bhv
— Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (@FCDOGovUK) December 7, 2023
"While some attacks have resulted in the leaking of documents, attempts to interfere in British politics and democracy have not been successful," according to the ministry, which says politicians, civil servants, journalists and NGOs have been targeted.
U.S. judicial authorities on Tuesday announced the indictment by a San Francisco court on Tuesday of two Russian citizens, Ruslan Aleksandrovich Peretyatko, an FSB agent, according to Washington and London, and Andrei Stanislavovich Korinets.
Hacks reportedly targeted NATO countries and Ukraine
They are accused of conducting "a campaign to hack into the computer networks of the United States, the United Kingdom, other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, and Ukraine, on behalf of the Russian government," the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement. They each face two charges of computer hacking, which carry maximum sentences of 5 and 20 years in prison.
In the United States, these hacking attempts "targeted employees or former employees of the intelligence community, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, defense contractors, and Department of Energy infrastructure, at least between October 2016 and October 2022," according to the statement.
Up to $10 million for their arrest
The two defendants belong to an alleged hacker group associated with Center 18, a specialized unit of the FSB identified as "Star Blizzard" by London or "Callisto Group" by Washington.
They are now targeted by British sanctions, but also by the US Treasury, and the State Department has announced a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to their whereabouts and arrest, as well as their accomplices.
"Both are currently wanted by the FBI and presumed to be in Russia," a senior FBI official told reporters on condition of anonymity, adding that he did not expect Moscow to hand them over. "But if they travel to a country that cooperates with the U.S. justice system, they run the risk of being extradited to the U.S.," the official said.
A senior Justice Department official acknowledged that the publication of the lawsuits likely made them "more difficult" but was justified by the need to "disrupt" the hackers' activities.
British MPs and diplomats 'hooked'
MPs from different political parties in the United Kingdom have been targeted, including through spearfishing techniques, since at least 2015 and until this year, according to British diplomacy. In particular, she cites the hacking of US-UK trade documents that had been leaked before the 2019 election.
London also said it had summoned the Russian ambassador "to express its deep concern about repeated attempts" to use the internet to "interfere in political and democratic processes in the UK and beyond".
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In the House of Commons, Foreign Secretary Leo Docherty said that "the FSB is behind a continuous process of interference" in these processes. "They have targeted members of this House" and the Lords, "civil servants, journalists and NGOs", he added.
A parliamentary report published in July 2020 accused the government of seriously underestimating the risks, and urged it to investigate possible Russian interference in British politics, particularly during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016.