Russia has summoned the Dutch ambassador to protest after the Netherlands exposed Moscow’s attempts to hack into the computers of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
In a report cited by Tass and other Russian state news agencies on Monday, the Russian foreign ministry said it would summon Renée Jones-Bos over “the misinformation campaign launched in The Hague”.
The move marks Russia’s first official response following a coordinated release of evidence by UK, US and Dutch officials to expose Russian military intelligence operations abroad.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said on Monday the four men accused by the Dutch of spying were on a “routine trip” to the Hague when they were detained and told to leave.
“There was nothing secret in the trip of the Russian specialists to the Hague in April this year,” Lavrov said during a meeting with his Italian counterpart, according to Interfax.
Lavrov said: “Frankly speaking, this all looked like a misunderstanding, especially considering that no protests and no protests over this incident were presented to us, neither in Moscow nor in the Hague.”
Later the Russian Foreign Ministry in a statement claimed the four men had been sent to test the IT security of the Russian embassy’s computer network, not hack into the computers used by the OPCW.
The statement was an attempt to explain why known GRU spies with hacking equipment were staying at a hotel next the OPCW headquarters. It did not deny any of the evidence presented by the Dutch, but merely reinterpreted it.
The agents were relieved of “devices meant to test the embassy’s IT systems to analyze the protection of the computer network due to regular attempts to hack into Russian state agencies,” the Russian Foreign Ministry complained, adding that the men were traveling on diplomatic passports and had not been charged.
The agents had traveled on passports using their real names and were photographed entering the country, where they met a diplomat from the Russian embassy.
The evidence presented by the Dutch made Russia’s military intelligence look sloppy. The release of the agents’ real names allowed journalists and amateur sleuths to peer into the day-to-day life of Russian spies, including dating sites, amateur football leagues, and car registrations.
Russia is set to hit back at the west this week at a long-planned meeting of the world’s chemical weapons watchdog. Moscow will accuse western countries of trying to subvert the OPCW’s aims and turn it into a propaganda tool. The clash will take place at a three-day meeting, which starts on Tuesday, of the OPCW executive council in The Hague.
Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs has claimed last week’s joint Dutch-UK revelations were timed to soften up public opinion before the executive meeting. OPCW staff and executive members have known about the hacking allegations for some time, but did not know about the quality of evidence linked to Russian agents from its GRU military intelligence agency.
The OPCW has endorsed British claims that novichok nerve agent, only available to Russia, was used in the poisoning of the former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. Russia is likely to object to these findings at the meeting.
It is also expected to challenge funding for plans to extend the OPCW’s mandate to try to identify perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria. At present, the OPCW is only required to undertake fact-finding missions that rule whether there has been a breach of the chemical weapons convention.
An OPCW inquiry into the possible Syrian government links to a chemical weapons strike in Douma, near Damascus, has yet to be completed. The interim report was inconclusive, and an update of the inquiry may be given at the executive meeting. Russia has denied any chemical weapons were used and accused British intelligence of staging the attacks. The Douma incident led to punitive cruise missile strikes by France, the UK and the US.
The new attribution mandate, agreed at a stormy OPCW executive meeting in June, is likely to lead to a €4m increase in its budget and the establishment of a special office for attribution, with 10 new staff. It plans to take on four attribution cases in 2019.
Russia has complained that the OPCW has been taken over by western interests, which have given western scientists and laboratories too much influence. It has threatened to walk out of the body.
In a sign of Russian diplomatic activity over the issue, Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, last week met Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, to secure his agreement to block “the politicisation of the OPCW”.
British sources believe the Russian hack may have been designed to glean information on both the Salisbury and Douma inquiries. Russia, as a member of the OPCW, would have access to many routine emails and documents from the OPCW’s bureaucracy, but not the progress of specific ongoing inquiries, or British requests.
The dispute between Russia and the UK over attribution of chemical weapons use has lasted more than a year. Last November, Russia was accused of protecting Syria by preventing the UN renewing the mandate for the body charged with attributing chemical weapons use. Russia claims previous attributions to the Syrian regime did not use compelling first-hand evidence.