Saturday, 17 September 2016 09:35


Tony Barber, The Financial Times, 16.09.2016   




Speaking at the Kremlin in December 2014, Vladimir Putin explained that bears might prefer a quiet life, eating berries and honey instead of chasing piglets, but no self-respecting bear should let its enemies rip out its claws and fangs. Among the bears for which the Russian president’s remarks were sure to have held singular resonance was Fancy Bear.  


Fancy Bear is a Russian cyber­espionage group that the World Anti-Doping Agency holds responsible for hacking into its computer systems and publishing the confidential medical data of US and European athletes.  


Another tech-savvy denizen of the Russian forest that likes to show its claws is Cozy Bear.  


According to CrowdStrike, a California-based cyber security company, the two bears were responsible for separate attacks on Democratic National Committee servers that disrupted this year’s US presidential race.  


Despite Russian government denials of involvement in these two incidents, CrowdStrike suspects that Fancy Bear is affiliated with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, and that Cozy Bear may be connected with the FSB, successor to the KGB, the Soviet spy service. The two bears do not appear to co-ordinate their cyber attacks on the US and its allies. But the nature of their targets indicate that the bears dance to a powerful state’s tune.  


Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear are almost certainly examples of a rich and highly distinctive tradition of Russian subversion that dates to before the first world war. This includes forged documents, false news stories planted in foreign media, front organisations and, in our times, government-backed social media trolls and fake websites.  


Naturally, when it comes to hacking and related clandestine operations, other governments are no babes in the woods. For example, China and Russia tout their friendship, but Chinese hacking of Russian institutions and companies has increased this year, according to security experts in Moscow.  


As for forgeries, a notorious 20th century case, the Zinoviev letter of 1924, had nothing to do with Soviet intelligence. The document purported to be a letter to the UK Communist party from Grigory Zinoviev, the Soviet international propaganda chief, encouraging subversive acts. British intelligence passed it to the Conservative party, from where it arrived at the Daily Mail. The Mail published it on the eve of the 1924 election, which the Tories proceeded to win by a landslide — although their victory owed little to the scandal. 


Nowadays, historians think that the letter probably originated with anti-Soviet White Russian exiles in Berlin or Riga. However, another spectacular forgery — The Protocols of the Elders of Zion — seems to have been concocted by the Paris-based head of the foreign branch of tsarist Russia’s secret police. The Protocols, which makes wild allegations of a Jewish plot to rule the world, was first published in Russia in 1903 and nourishes global anti-Semitism to the present day.


The Soviet Communist party and KGB had a kind of colour scheme for subversive measures. The KGB’s Service A conducted “black propaganda” (forgeries and rumours); the party’s international information department handled “white propaganda” (stories in the official Soviet press); and the party’s international department took care of “grey propaganda” (clandestine radio broadcasts and front groups).


From the 1960s until the late 1980s, all sorts of lies were sown in western countries and the developing world. The KGB spread a rumour that a rightwing conspiracy was behind President John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. In a deception codenamed Operation Infektion, a letter appeared in a pro-Soviet Indian newspaper in 1983 alleging that Aids was the result of Pentagon biological weapons programmes. In 1985 the disinformation campaign moved to Literaturnaya Gazeta, a Soviet literary weekly, from where it spread to non-Communist countries, damaging America’s image. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Yevgeny Primakov, a former foreign intelligence chief, confirmed that the KGB had set up the whole operation. 


A comparable example involving Mr Putin’s Russia is the false story in January that asylum-seekers had raped the 13-year-old daughter of a Russian immigrant family in Germany. This tissue of lies, first reported on Russian state television, stirred up ethnic Russians in Germany just when public opinion was on edge because of the tide of refugees entering the country.  


Rather than pure aggression, retaliation often seems to be behind Russia’s dark arts. The hacking of WADA was probably a tit-for-tat move for the ban on Russian athletes at the Olympics that followed WADA’s disclosures of state-sponsored doping.


The DNC hacking may reflect the Kremlin’s perception that the US had a hand both in the 2011 anti-Putin protests in Russian cities and in the 2014 Ukrainian uprising.


Whatever their motives, Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear seem in no mood for a diet of berries and honey.

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