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2019-12-12

Disinfo war: RU vs GB

A look at Russian info ops against Britain

This entire sequence of events begins with the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal1, an ex-GRU officer who was a double-agent for the UK’s intelligence services. This hit attempt happened on the 4th of March, 2018. 8 days later, then-Prime Minister Theresa May formally accused Russia for the attack.

The toxin used in the poisoning was a nerve agent called Novichok. In addition to the British military-research facility at Porton Down, a small number of labs around the world were tasked with confirming Porton Down’s conclusions on the toxin that was used, by the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons).

With the background on the matter out of the way, here are the different instances of well timed disinformation pushed out by Moscow.

The Russian offense

April 14, 2018

  • RT published an article claiming that Spiez had identified a different toxin—BZ, and not Novichok.
  • This was an attempt to shift the blame from Russia (origin of Novichok), to NATO countries, where it was apparently in use.
  • Most viral piece on the matter in all of 2018.

Although technically correct, this isn’t the entire truth. As part of protocol, the OPCW added a new substance to the sample as a test. If any of the labs failed to identify this substance, their findings were deemed untrustworthy. This toxin was a derivative of BZ.

Here are a few interesting things to note:

  1. The entire process starting with the OPCW and the labs is top-secret. How did Russia even know Speiz was one of the labs?
  2. On April 11th, the OPCW mentioned BZ in a report confirming Porton Down’s findings. Note that Russia is a part of OPCW, and are fully aware of the quality control measures in place. Surely they knew about the reason for BZ’s use?

Regardless, the Russian version of the story spread fast. They cashed in on two major factors to plant this disinfo:

  1. “NATO bad” : Overused, but surprisingly works. People love a story that goes full 180°.
  2. Spiez can’t defend itself: At the risk of revealing that it was one of the facilities testing the toxin, Spiez was only able to “not comment”.

April 3, 2018

  • The Independent publishes a story based on an interview with the chief executive of Porton Down, Gary Aitkenhead.
  • Aitkenhead says they’ve identified Novichok but “have not identified the precise source”.
  • Days earlier, Boris Johnson (then-Foreign Secretary) claimed that Porton Down confirmed the origin of the toxin to be Russia.
  • This discrepancy was immediately promoted by Moscow, and its network all over.

This one is especially interesting because of how simple it is to exploit a small contradiction, that could’ve been an honest mistake. This episode is also interesting because the British actually attempted damage control this time. Porton Down tried to clarify Aitkenhead’s statement via a tweet2:

Our experts have precisely identified the nerve agent as a Novichok. It is not, and has never been, our responsibility to confirm the source of the agent @skynews @UKmoments

Quoting the Defense One article on the matter:

The episode is seen by those inside Britain’s security communications team as the most serious misstep of the crisis, which for a period caused real concern. U.K. officials told me that, in hindsight, Aikenhead could never have blamed Russia directly, because that was not his job—all he was qualified to do was identify the chemical. Johnson, in going too far, was more damaging. Two years on, he is now prime minister.

May 2018

  • OPCW facilities receive an email from Spiez inviting them to a conference.
  • The conference itself is real, and has been organized before.
  • The email however, was not—attached was a Word document containing malware.
  • Also seen were inconsistencies in the email formatting, from what was normal.

This spearphishing campaign was never offically attributed to Moscow, but there are a lot of tells here that point to it being the work of a state actor:

  1. Attack targetting a specific group of individuals.
  2. Relatively high level of sophistication—email formatting, malicious Word doc, etc.

However, the British NCSC have deemed with “high confidence” that the attack was perpetrated by GRU. In the UK intelligence parlance, “highly likely” / “high confidence” usually means “definitely”.

Britain’s defense

September 5, 2018

The UK took a lot of hits in 2018, but they eventually came back:

  • Metropolitan Police has a meeting with the press, releasing their findings.
  • CCTV footage showing the two Russian hitmen was released.
  • Traces of Novichok identified in their hotel room.

This sudden news explosion from Britan’s side completely bulldozed the information space pertaining to the entire event. According to Defense One:

Only two of the 10 most viral stories in the weeks following the announcement were sympathetic to Russia, according to NewsWhip. Finally, officials recalled, it felt as though the U.K. was the aggressor. “This was all kept secret to put the Russians on the hop,” one told me. “Their response was all over the place from this point. It was the turning point.”

Earlier in April, 4 GRU agents were arrested in the Netherlands, who were there to execute a cyber operation against the OPCW (located in The Hague), via their WiFi networks. They were arrested by Dutch security, and later identifed as belonging to Unit 26165. They also seized a bunch of equipment from the room and their car.

The abandoned equipment revealed that the GRU unit involved had sent officers around the world to conduct similar cyberattacks. They had been in Malaysia trying to steal information about the investigation into the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and at a hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, where a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) conference was taking place as Russia faced sanctions from the International Olympic Committee. Britain has said that the same GRU unit attempted to compromise Foreign Office and Porton Down computer systems after the Skripal poisoning.

October 4, 2018

UK made the arrests public, published a list of infractions commited by Russia, along with the specific GRU unit that was caught.

During this period, just one of the top 25 viral stories was from a pro-Russian outlet, RT—that too a fairly straightforward piece.

Wrapping up

As with conventional warfare, it’s hard to determine who won. Britain may have had the last blow, but Moscow—yet again—depicted their finesse in information warfare. Their ability to seize unexpected openings, gather intel to facilitate their disinformation campaigns, and their cyber capabilities makes them a formidable threat.

2020 will be fun, to say the least.

Questions or comments? Send an email to ~icyphox/x@lists.sr.ht — my public inbox.