Three top Russian intelligence officials and one contractor that worked for the cybersecurity office of the Russian National Intelligence Agency have been arrested and charged with treason. US intelligence officials speculate that the arrests are the direct result of American investigations regarding the hacking of DNC computers leading up to the 2016 American presidential election.
For months now, concerns about Russian involvement in the presidential election have permeated throughout the world’s media, but critics have consistently argued that the U.S. government had not released sufficient evidence to the public to establish the certainty that many political leaders have demonstrated regarding Russian meddling. These arrests may well indicate that American intelligence officials had more than digital sleuthing to back up their assessment; they may have inside intel provided by the four men now being held in Russian custody.
If that is indeed the case, it would make more sense that intelligence officials would be reluctant to announce such evidence publicly, as it would almost certainly prompt a mole hunt that could cost American intelligence agencies their imbedded assets – and cost those moles a lifetime behind bars.
The United States first formally accused Russia of meddling with the election process last October, a full month before ballots were cast, but in the final weeks of President Barack Obama’s administration, an investigation into the situation prompted even President Trump himself to agree at one point that the Russian government may have been involved in the hacking of email accounts associated with high-ranking members of the Democratic Party. The report, which remains classified but has had a thinned-out version released for public consumption, even went so far as to accuse Russian President, Vladimir Putin himself of being directly involved in the planning of the cyber-operation intended to discredit former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s chances at winning the election.
The Russian government has consistently denied these allegations, and continues to despite the recent arrests, though noted Russian opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, reported on Friday that an internal investigation linked the four charged with treason to the American investigation regarding the election hacking. The Russian-based paper did not name its sources within the F.S.B. (Russian National Intelligence Agency) but claimed that the investigation began after the American media reported that the U.S. based cyber-security company ThreatConnect was able to link the hacking to a Siberian server company that is used primarily for illicit cyber-activities such as the distribution of illegal pornography and counterfeit goods.
That investigation led to Sergei Mikhailov, a deputy director at the Russian Center for Information Security, who was then arrested during a meeting of senior intelligence agency officers in Moscow. Reports indicate law enforcement entered the meeting, put a bag over Mikhailov’s head and promptly escorted him out.
The investigation apparently also led to Ruslan Stoyanov, a senior researcher at the Russian cyber security company Kaspersky Lab, which works directly with the Russian government, and at least two others.
Perhaps the most intriguing development to come of these arrests thus far, however, is the fact that the Russian government has permitted its state-owned media outlets to cover the arrests – publicly airing what could be seen as its own dirty laundry. The decision to allow the story to be aired could indicate that the Kremlin has a firm enough backstory to take the men to trial without risking their own refusal to acknowledge that they took part in the hacking. It could potentially also be a political move, intended as leverage against the American president they’ve been accused of assisting. The Kremlin could choose to allow these men to testify in open court, revealing the government’s involvement in the crime but potentially harming Trump’s perception as the legitimate victor in the election far more than any political fallout could harm Putin’s reputation within his own country. A thorough rebuking of claims that the operation was government sanctioned could pin everything to the four on trial, leaving the government, and its head, with the deniability necessary to maintain international relations.
Whatever the reasoning behind Russia’s recent rash of arrests, as well as their willingness to make them public, it’s doubtful it hasn’t occurred with at least some layer of ulterior motives from Putin’s regime. Only time will tell what those motives may actually be.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press