Excerpts from the Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova

February 9, 2017

Hacking allegations against Russia

The trend of accusing Russia of hacking attacks, which was set by Washington and former President Obama’s team, has been picked up all over the world. It is very much alive and growing. Unfortunately, it has to be said that the information campaign directed against Russia continues to be fuelled in the Western media, with flash mobs and an increasing number of participants.

New blips on the radar screen include Norway, Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Estonia. We don’t have that many hackers! I’d like to start with Norway. The country’s police security service, apparently succumbing to the influence of neighbouring Sweden, stated that Norwegian government agencies, including the Foreign Ministry, the Armed Forces, nuclear and radiation safety administrations, the Labour Party, a university and the police service itself came under cyberattack from so-called Kremlin hackers. And although it is noted that the investigation is ongoing, all prizes have already been awarded and guilt has been assigned without any evidence, without any facts. Everything is groundless and unverifiable, and therefore nothing has been officially recorded anywhere.

A similar situation has evolved in the Netherlands. Local experts say that this time Russian hackers targeted a building in the Binnenhof, a complex of governmental and parliamentary buildings, where the prime minister’s office is located (that’s how far they have reached). The Dutch public also continues to be agitated by former foreign minister and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who believes his country is “attractive to Russian hackers” on the assumption that parliamentary elections are due to take place there in March. You see, things have really coalesced: “Russian hackers” are a phenomenon that feeds on parliamentary and presidential elections and targets regions and countries where these elections are due to take place. According to Mr Scheffer’s logic, the involvement of “Russian hackers” in this process can be assessed based on the outcome of past elections. The hysteria that is fanned in the media is being actively joined by members of the country’s government who do not mince their words. Even though they have no proof, they publicly call Russia the “main source of cyber threats.”

This story has also made it to Canada. Considering that Russia, through its hackers, has allegedly interfered in the US presidential election, the Canadian leadership announced as a matter of urgency that it has developed special tactics to protect its electoral process against possible cyberattacks. US “retirees” are fuelling the flames. They are actively traveling to the country to prevent emergency situations allegedly threatening Canada, caused, among other things, by “Kremlin hackers.” Speaking in Canada, former US CIA and NSA chief Michael Hayden declared “Russian hackers” to be the main threat to Canada. See how big this is? Asked how the source of a cyber threat could be identified in the 21st century, he said that the more totalitarian a country is, the more likely it is involved in state-sponsored hacking attacks. In that case Niccolò Machiavelli could be of use here. I believe we will find a couple of relevant passages there.

The latest variation on the mythical subject of Russian cyber threats came from British Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon. Speaking at a Scottish university on the issue of Russian-UK relations, instead of giving serious consideration to ways of improving cooperation between our countries in countering real security threats, he chose to devote a substantial part of his speech to “Russian hackers,” groundlessly holding Russia responsible for cyberattacks carried out against government agencies in Bulgaria, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Montenegro. According to Mr Fallon, “Russia is clearly testing the West. It is undermining national security for many allies.” And this is from the defence minister of one of the world’s leading countries! The impression is – and it is quite a strong impression – that the mythical Russian threat worries him much more than, say, international terrorism does. This is understandable. International terrorism actually exists and it is up to each state whether to fight it, but in any case, they will be called to account. As for Russian, Kremlin hackers, this is a brilliant story because nobody knows where they are, who they are or from where their attacks are carried out, but everybody knows how to fight them and how much money is required for that.

Speaking at a Scottish university Mr Fallon said that cyberattacks are carried out from Russian soil by Russians against government agencies, including in Germany. At the same time as he made his remarks, Süddeutsche Zeitung published an article saying that German special services had investigated for almost a year the disinformation campaign against the country’s government allegedly run by the Russian authorities. It cites government sources as saying that no conclusive evidence of Russian interference was found. How come? This is what we’ve been reading and hearing from officials, people who only recently represented their governments, their states. As for the Süddeutsche Zeitung story, I would like to point out that our German colleagues took a year (citing government sources) to understand that there was no media or cyber interference. A question arises: Why, all of a sudden, despite the hysteria in many countries, was this kind of article published, citing German official representatives? Could it be because Berlin has begun to understand that exploiting the subject of “Russian hackers,” Russian media influence could simply undermine the legitimacy of their election results?

Paradoxically, there is conclusive evidence as to who in fact engages in hacking attacks and wire tapping. Regarding Germany, it is clear who monitored who. There is a desire to attribute everything to a state that is not involved in it in any way. The information campaign is plain to see.

Answers to media questions:

Question: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia was likely to cooperate with the new US administration on Afghanistan. Consultations on Afghanistan are scheduled for February in Moscow. Will the United States and the Western coalition take part in this?

Maria Zakharova: I would like to reiterate that the situation remains unchanged since my last briefing where similar questions were asked. To understand how to cooperate with our US colleagues, we have to wait for full diplomatic contact with them to come under way. To date, the Secretary of State has been appointed. The problem is that the “top managers” or the CEO’s, if we can use this term, to the Department of State, are still missing. They have yet to be appointed. Those who have, as I understand it, are just taking over.

The sticking point is that the new administration has not published its foreign policy concept. I do not know whether it has been formulated or not. There is nothing in the public space, nor have we received any details via diplomatic channels. I think this is what is holding back any developments. The new administration should begin by developing a global or, conversely, a regional doctrine, a foreign policy concept, a vision of its foreign policy – either regional or general – and then the first diplomatic contacts can begin and take place. Then we can start cooperating as is usual diplomatic practice. Thus far, no contacts of this kind have occurred.

The Russian Embassy in Washington is functioning, but it faces the same kind of problems, because the State Department team has not been completed. We are waiting for our US colleagues and will work with them.

As far as the attendance of US representatives is concerned, regardless of whether there is a State Department team or not, this question should be referred to the US, not us. Insofar as the event is sponsored by Russia, we will certainly inform you about it. I have mentioned the issues that are influencing bilateral dialogue.

Question: The new US administration is sending some extremely diverse signals. Are there any specific steps that you expect from them? Are there any points that will prompt you, as you watch the administration’s moves, that they are really in mood for a constructive cooperation with Russia?

Maria Zakharova: To have cooperation, you need someone to promote it “from the other end.” Let me reiterate that we are expecting a State Department team to be formed. The administration of the US President needs to formulate its approaches to the main issues in international relations. That done, diplomatic contacts should be held, after which we will be ready for full cooperation with our US colleagues on issues of mutual interest.

Question: Hackers and cyberattacks were one of the most impressive themes that you covered in your extensive briefing. The whole thing is taking on really large proportions. Despite the fact that the US presidential campaign is over, and things are supposed to slow down, we are seeing the opposite. If you look at Canada, Norway or other countries, you get the impression that the problem is taking on the dimension of an epidemic. In this regard, I wonder if Moscow can come up with a proposal for our foreign partners to discuss this subject, laying their cards on the table? Why not have a conference or a meeting on some level to discuss the issue? After all, they are the ones who created it.

Maria Zakharova: I can tell, you are a rare guest here. I've been saying this all year now, how we ask the diplomatic and special services to provide us with information. We propose discussing this issue at an international forum if, for some reason, they are reluctant to talk to us one on one. Do you think anybody provided us with anything?

Are you aware of the number of times Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asked his colleague, US Secretary of State John Kerry, to clarify what exactly they mean when they talk about Russian hackers? It defies imagination. However, crunching the numbers is a cinch.

We asked our US colleagues what they mean when they say this every time they met in person and had talks. After all, the issue is not only about leaks to the media. There were official statements by the US administration as well. In addition, we asked them to provide us with data from any source. We also suggested that the United States and Russia begin to cooperate in any format. Their answer invariably was that they are unaware of it, will find out more about the subject, and return to the issue later. That’s all there is to it. That is why we say that the issue is not about the specifics, not about the willingness to ensure their cyber security or to protect themselves from potential threats. All of that is irrelevant. In fact, they are not interested in facts, data or numbers. They are interested in one thing only, which is to have a news opportunity to clarify each time what is going on in their country.

Unfortunately, a number of countries in northern Europe have for many decades been using the excuse that Russian submarines are allegedly surfacing in the middle of their respective capitals on an almost monthly basis. I cited this example even during the briefings. Going through the briefing archives of 20 to 30 years ago, we found that the topic of Russian submarines surfacing all but in the bathrooms in some northern European capitals has been used for a long time. This is a fairly simple trick. It goes like this: a source in a particular department (usually related to national security) tells a particular newspaper that, once again, a Russian submarine surfaced someplace in their country. You can imagine this news item tearing apart the information space like a torpedo, like a Loch Ness monster story. They use photos, pictures or cartoons – anything goes as long as it whips up the theme. A couple of months later, the newspaper that published the information first, will publish, somewhere in the back of the last page, literally one line saying that the investigators found that it was not a Soviet/Russian submarine, but the remains of an old ship or some other wreckage. But no one is interested in it anymore, and the story stops right there. This takes place two, three, four or five times a year.

Hackers are part of the same strategy. This narrative is even more convenient, because you don’t even have to show pictures, whereas in the case of the submarines you need to come up with at least something. With the hackers, you can get away with not presenting any proof. All you need to do is take a picture of a computer, take a screenshot from The Matrix, throw in a computer mouse to spruce things up and use this “evidence” to propagate just about anything. Importantly, there will be a picture of the Kremlin in the background. The story is now ready for publishing. That’s all there is to it.

We return to these topics precisely because there’s no real story behind them. We could have made sense of their line of thinking, if, say, they took offence at us, “isolated” us and didn’t want to talk to us. If that was the case, if only for domestic consumption, they would publish data, do research, and come to some conclusion. Instead, every six to 12 months, we see these instances of stovepiping.

Recently, the German press wrote that an audit revealed that there were no attacks whatsoever, or, even if there were, they cannot be traced back to their point of origin, etc. Most importantly, whenever they need to stir up public opinion and redirect it in a particular direction, they resort to this absolutely far-fetched subject.

Russia and the United States formed a Bilateral Presidential Commission at one point, which operated through a variety of subgroups, whose experts engaged, among other things, in cybersecurity issues. We are willing to cooperate. Just the other day, a US State Department representative made waves when he said that they are willing to discuss cooperation and interaction in cybersecurity with Russia. This was taken as something out of the ordinary. We have experts and an ambassador-at-large, who is also a Special Presidential Representative for International Cooperation in Information Security. He clarifies Russia’s approaches, advances proposals at the relevant forums of international organisations and takes part in developing corresponding international instruments on international information security. Everyone knows him, he knows everyone. However, none of our Western colleagues seems to be interested in taking advantage of this opportunity.

The problem is not only that the information environment never ends to undermine the image of Russia and to portray it as an aggressive state, but there are other things as well. Indeed, there is a threat from an internet community that upholds, in particular, the interests of terrorist organisations. Everyone is aware of it. ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and other organisations recruiting new supporters through the internet, conducting terrorist attacks, and motivating people to commit acts of terror is a universally recognised fact. This is a huge problem. In fact, no one is paying due attention to it. However, everyone tends to zero in on a story related to the Russian or the Kremlin hackers. The dangerous part is that they prefer to ignore the real threat in the cyber environment, although it is there and it is enormous. The subject of suicides promoted through social media is part of terrorist organisations’ activity designed to push individuals to commit suicides or acts of terror in the name of some lofty ideal. These trends are very dangerous. On top of everything else, the attractively wrapped ideas of terrorism are being propagated. Today’s evil (and international terrorism is evil) is very attractively wrapped. It goes almost hand in hand with the latest technology and online capabilities. A person does not realise that he or she has already grabbed the bait thrown to them by terrorist organisations. Only later it becomes clear that the websites that this person visited, the subscriptions that he or she used tend to form a corresponding ideology. We are aware of it and talk at length about the modern terrorist organisations being a world apart from what they used to be 20 to 30 years ago. The new terrorism has different dimensions. Some of them are wrapped in a really attractive package.