"We announce an indictment charging seven Russian military officers with violation of several US criminal laws for malicious cyber activities against the United States and its allies," US Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers told reporters Thursday. Four of the accused are allegedly GRU agents, Russian military intelligence, who were previously expelled from the Netherlands, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Alleged targets include the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Westinghouse nuclear power company and the World Anti-Doping Agency, the keepers of drug-testing data on Olympic athletes. Demers also claimed the Russians attacked a Swiss lab that was analyzing the toxic substance believed to have been used to poison the Skripals in Salisbury, UK, earlier this year, and of course he also renewed the perennial accusation of Russia having attempted to sway the US 2016 elections.
The LA Times noted the accusations are backed by digital fingerprints and on-the-ground surveillance of alleged Russian spy teams.
The Russian Foreign Ministry responded to the accusations Thursday by saying the US was on a "dangerous path" and that the Trump administration was "poisoning" the atmosphere of US-Russia relations. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said the US was struggling to keep the "old fiction about 'Russian interference into 2016 US elections'" alive, Sputnik reported.
"We regret to see how the US authorities continue to poison the atmosphere of Russia-US relations with new portions of baseless accusations against Russia, which some other NATO countries rush to repeat on orders from Washington," Ryabkov said. "The Western public is being intimidated again with 'Russian hackers,' this time allegedly involved in 'breaking into' computer networks almost all over the world."
US Defense Secretary James Mattis, at a meeting with NATO allies in Brussels, said Russia would "have to be held to account."
"Basically, the Russians got caught with their equipment, people who were doing it, and they have got to pay the piper," Mattis said. He did not elaborate on the nature of that retaliation or response.
The previous day, Mattis promised US allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) the use of its offensive cyberwarfare technology if they so desired.
"We will formally announce that the United States is prepared to offer NATO its cyber capabilities if asked," Katie Wheelbarger, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said Wednesday, Reuters reported.
Wheelbarger also said the US offering its cyber capabilities "sends a message primarily aimed at Russia."
Journalist and author Daniel Lazare told Radio Sputnik's Loud & Clear Thursday that since some of the DOJ's accusations date several years back, the timing of the twin announcements was probably intended to provide a pretext for going on the cyberwar offensive.
But that's dangerous, he noted, because "cyberwar can lead to real war very easily."
"We're seeing a dramatic, dramatic heating up in the international temperature, and cyberwar is turning into a really increasingly important part of that escalation. It's very dangerous," he said. "The US, especially, is being very aggressive."
Lazare noted the "supposedly pro-Russian Trump administration" is being very "aggressive at targeting Russia and trying to mobilize NATO against Russia — and they're probably succeeding."
Lazare focused primarily on the alleged hacking of medical records of nearly 250 athletes from 30 countries, many of whom had been granted exemptions from Olympic rules regarding therapeutic use of drugs. Russia's entire Olympic team was barred from competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this past February, due to extensive and repeated findings by the International Olympic Committee. However, individual Russian athletes were still allowed to compete, just not under the Russian flag. Russian athletes had previously been individually barred from past Olympic games for infractions of the policy. In addition, the IOC stripped Russia of 41 of its Olympic medals retroactively for failed doping tests.
"Maybe the Russians are trying to dig up ammunition to use to counter American charges that they're abusing the rules. It's very hard to say. It's difficult to say how much substance there is to these indictments. All we can say, though, is the US is really leading the charge; it's really being aggressive, and the whole situation is very dangerous. And I have zero confidence in the responsibility or the sobriety of the people who are leading this offensive — or their honesty."
"An indictment that will never come to trial is worth very little," Lazare said, noting that like most other US and UK indictments of Russian intelligence operatives, none of them will likely ever see the inside of a courtroom.
"The Trump administration has announced a huge cyberwar offensive in which they will be much more aggressive than the Obama or Bush II administrations were, in what they say is countering Russian or Chinese threats but will really mean being proactive, to knock them out before they can attack the US, assuming that's even what they intended to do."