Maxim Tucker, The Times, 27.10.2016
Thousands of confidential emails between President Putin’s advisers exposing the Kremlin’s efforts to break up neighbouring states have been leaked by Ukrainian hackers.
CyberJunta, a hacking group affiliated to Ukraine’s spy agency, the SBU, has released a gigabyte of data that appears to come from the email account of Vladislav Surkov, Mr Putin’s point man on Ukraine.
The hack reveals Moscow’s control over pro-Russian breakaway regions in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Emails to Mr Surkov show that the Kremlin was asked to approve ministerial appointments, laws and even press statements for the supposedly independent statelets.
More recent communications have been handed to Ukrainian intelligence officials, who told The Times that they had sent them to the CIA and other western agencies. Hackers have promised to release more Kremlin data.
“This is the clearest yet indication of high-level Russian involvement in the organisation of the separatist republics,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former Nato secretary-general, said. “It demonstrates Russia’s subversive tactics, which is why I’m calling for sanctions against Russia to have a 12-month renewal.”
Moscow has repeatedly denied providing military support to rebels in east Ukraine. Yet in May 2014, a month after a pro-Russian insurgency began there, Mr Surkov received a list of prospective rebel ministers, many of them Russian, for Kremlin approval.
It was sent from the office of Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch and imperialist against whom sanctions were imposed by the EU and the US for “financing illegal armed groups”.
Almost all of those listed, including Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, were “elected” to the proposed positions in November the same year.
A message sent in June 2014 to the Kremlin adviser from Denis Pushilin, the chairman of the “Donetsk People’s Republic Supreme Soviet”, has an attached budget of $24,000 a month for a press centre and newspaper, suggesting that the initiative was funded directly by Mr Putin’s office.
A budget estimate for the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, sent by a Russian official, suggests that Moscow was looking at bankrolling the rebel republics with up to £4.85 billion a year.
“We can see by the summer of 2014 they were already financing the DPR small time and preparing to go big,” said Kirill Mikhailov, a researcher at the Conflict Intelligence Unit, an international organisation that documents Russian activities abroad.
The Putin administration was also sent casualty reports during the fighting for Donetsk airport, according to lists of dead and wounded sent to Mr Surkov by rebel leaders. Media monitoring reports, prepared by one of Mr Surkov’s assistants, express delight that western media had failed to grasp the extent of Russian control over forces fighting the Ukrainian government in east Ukraine.
Later, after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian missile, the assistant warns that the “obviously weak positions” of rebel spokesmen were being exposed by the international press.
Most of the emails sent to Mr Surkov were weekly briefings on events in Ukraine, Moldova and the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke away from Georgia during bloody conflicts in the 1990s.
The inbox, which appears to have been administered by secretaries named Maria and Yevgenia, also sheds light on Mr Surkov’s daily life. An invitation to a reception at the French embassy and orders for $100 leather diaries are among the leaked emails.
Moscow has denied that the leaks are genuine, claiming that Mr Surkov does not use email. “I don’t know whether this is done by our domestic hackers or by foreigners, Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said. “[Mr Surkov] is a very talented person and therefore it is natural that everybody tends to attribute something to him. Most often, it doesn’t reflect reality.”
Experts believe the complete inbox is too complex to have been fabricated. “The complexity of this leak and its metadata, which shows the path of these emails through servers, between real people, leads us to conclude it is genuine,” Aric Toler, an analyst for UK investigative group Bellingcat, said.