Boris Johnson’s government fired a double broadside at Moscow today, accusing Russia of interfering in the 2019 general election and launching hacker attacks to try to steal coronavirus vaccine research from UK labs.
In a statement released jointly with US and Canadian security agencies, the UK National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said a hacker group known as APT29 or Cozy Bear is “almost certainly” working with Vladimir Putin’s intelligence agencies in ongoing efforts to breach security at pharmaceutical and academic labs working on a Covid-19 vaccine. The organisations affected are thought to include the University of Oxford and Imperial College London.
And Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, separately said that unnamed “Russian actors” were to blame for spreading a leaked UK government document on the internet in the hope of influencing the outcome of December’s election. It was the first time a minister has publicly acknowledged efforts by Moscow to influence a vote in the UK. During the election campaign, Mr Johnson dismissed concerns about Russian interference as “Bermuda Triangle stuff”.
The document, detailing the progress of talks with the US on a post-Brexit trade deal, was seized upon by Labour’s then leader Jeremy Corbyn in a dramatic campaign press conference in which he said it provided proof that Mr Johnson had put the NHS on the table in negotiations.
Mr Corbyn accused the prime minister of reviving the issue now to divert attention away from the contents of the long-delayed report by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee into alleged Russian interference in UK politics, which is believed to contain embarrassing details of links between the Tory party and wealthy oligarchs.
Suppressed by Mr Johnson over the past nine months, it was announced on Thursday that the report will be published next week after the PM’s preferred candidate Chris Grayling was defeated in the election to chair the ISC by Julian Lewis, who was stripped of the Tory whip by Downing Street in retaliation.
Mr Corbyn said: “Today’s government claim is an attempt to divert attention from the threat to the NHS a Trump trade deal poses and the Tory party links to Russian oligarchs expected to be revealed in the long-buried parliamentary Russia report.”
But Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson dismissed the claim as “nonsense”, insisting that the ISC – whose members were only appointed this week after the PM delayed nominations for seven months – had to be informed before the information was put into the public domain.
The chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia, Labour MP Chris Bryant, said he had been warning for years of Russian attempts to interfere in UK polls, including the general election and the Brexit referendum.
“It doesn’t come as any surprise to me,” said Mr Bryant. “The only thing that comes as a surprise is that the government has chosen to reveal it today, because if they thought that last year, you would have thought they would have wanted to publish the Russia report before the general election.”
Today’s government claim is an attempt to divert attention from the threat to the NHS a Trump trade deal poses and the Tory party links to Russian oligarchs expected to be revealed in the long-buried parliamentary Russia report.
See https://t.co/hCSp3APPL7— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn)July 16, 2020
Mr Putin’s chief spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed the hacking claims, saying: “Russia has nothing to do with these attempts. We do not accept such accusations nor the latest groundless allegations of interference in 2019 elections.”
And Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, said Mr Raab’s statement was “vague and contradictory” and called on the UK to “produce facts” supporting the allegations.
But officials said that the UK, US and Canada had a high degree of confidence in asserting that the hacker group, which targeted vulnerabilities in VPN and external mail services at labs researching Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, was operating as part of Russian intelligence services. While stopping short of saying the attacks were ordered by Mr Putin personally, sources made clear that the group’s activities are believed to be known to the upper echelons of the Kremlin regime.
It is unclear whether hackers were successful in obtaining information. Their attacks form part of a pattern which has seen both state and criminal organisations shift their hostile cyber activities to target potentially valuable intellectual property relating to Covid-19 during the pandemic.
Mr Raab said it was “completely unacceptable” for Russia to target those fighting against coronavirus.
“While others pursue their selfish interests with reckless behaviour, the UK and its allies are getting on with the hard work of finding a vaccine and protecting global health,” he said.
“The UK will continue to counter those conducting such cyber attacks, and work with our allies to hold perpetrators to account.”
Paul Chichester, NCSC director of operations, condemned the “despicable” attacks and urged organisations involved in Covid-19 work to familiarise themselves with advice on how to protect themselves. It is not thought that the NHS was among the group’s targets or that hackers have sought to obtain the personal information of individual researchers.
APT29 – also known as Cozy Bear or The Dukes – is a long-established hacking cell which uses a variety of tools and techniques, including spear-phishing and custom malware known as “WellMess” and “WellMail”.
Officials did not link the group’s campaign with the separate attempt to influence last year’s election, which Mr Raab said was “almost certain” to be the responsibility of “Russian actors”.
In a written statement to the House of Commons, Mr Raab said that the group had tried to “amplify” a leaked document which had been illicitly obtained and placed on Reddit several months earlier but had until then won little attention.
The papers detailed six rounds of UK-US trade talks between 2017-19 and included references to American ambitions to secure access for drugs companies to NHS markets and to end import bans on agricultural products like chlorine-washed chicken.
Mr Raab did not suggest that the papers were initially obtained by the Russian actors, or that they passed them directly to Labour, stating only that they took action to “promote the illicitly acquired material online in the run up to the general election”. He said a criminal investigation was ongoing into the original leak of the document.
The row developed as Mr Lewis denounced as “improper” the attempt to install Mr Grayling as chair of the ISC, which came after Downing Street repeatedly said that the choice was for committee members to make.
He revealed that he received a text asking him to confirm he would back the former cabinet minister, but said: “I did not reply as I considered it an improper request.”
A senior government source said the Conservative whip was withdrawn because the New Forest East MP had been “working with Labour and other opposition MPs for his own advantage”.
But former ISC chair Sir Malcolm Rifkind said Mr Johnson had his own “incompetence” to blame for his humiliating defeat, as the act of parliament creating the committee made clear No 10 had “no role” in picking its chair.
“I think the prime minister is the author of his own misfortune,” said the Conservative former foreign secretary.
“The prime minister or his advisers, whoever was dealing with it, has handled this in an extremely incompetent way.”
Lisa Nandy, shadow foreign secretary, said: “The reported actions of the Russian intelligence services are wrong and should be condemned. The Labour Party is committed to working with the government to protect the UK’s national security and safeguard our institutions from foreign interference – none more so than those leading the international effort to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.
“The long-overdue Russia report must now be made public, and the foreign secretary must come to the House of Commons and provide MPs with concrete steps that will be taken to protect the UK from these kind of foreign cyber attacks.”