The Kremlin Is Not a Victim of Hackers

To think such a thing is possible is to profoundly misunderstand the symbiotic relationship between Russian hackers and the Kremlin’s security services.

The Wall Street Journal yesterday published an article titled “In Russia, Leaked Documents Rattle the Kremlin“, the main thrust of which is to suggest that the Kremlin is as besieged by hackers as any Western state getting ready for elections. The opening passage of the WSJ piece:

Russian domestic politics are being influenced by hacking tactics similar to ones Russia is accused of using to try to weaken its foreign opponents.

Documents found in email accounts hackers said are linked to Russian officials helped fuel recent protests across Russia against corruption. The documents were released by a shadowy group called Anonymous International—also known as “Shaltai Boltai,” which is Russian for Humpty Dumpty.

Alexei Navalny, an anticorruption activist who mobilized the protests, featured some of the documents in a video released beforehand alleging that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev used a network of friends to help hide his wealth and property.

The article goes on to portray the Kremlin as fighting a desperate battle with the forces that these hackers have unleashed, forces harnessed by Navalny’s upstart political movement that resulted in widespread protests around the country a little over a month ago. The message is clear: These are the ugly realities of today’s politics, where “shadowy” anarchist groups (or maybe just morbidly obese people living in their parents’ basements?) repeatedly compromise government officials and try to disrupt democratic elections.

As if to underline the point, the Journal goes on to point out that Russian President Vladimir Putin “vigorously” denied having had any hand in the leaking of hacked emails purloined from the Macron campaign, and that he has no intention to sway any vote in the West. “It wasn’t us!” Putin seems to be saying. “We, too, are victims!”

The usually reliable Journal really dropped the ball. The story is misleading at best, partly because the known details of the Anonymous International/”Shaltai-Boltai” story are never discussed, but mostly because it paints an incomplete picture of how Russia’s special services operate. In getting this critical framing wrong, the piece unwittingly ends up playing defense for a Kremlin doing damage control after what is widely believed to be a badly botched intervention in last weekend’s French election.

Eagle-eyed readers may have connected the WSJ‘s brief mention of “Shaltai-Boltai” to news earlier this year that Russia had successfully completed a counter-intelligence operation, mopping up several Russian hackers and even a few of its own security personnel in the process. The only reason that rather obscure story got any play in Western media is that Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, obviously aware of the uncomfortable timing of the arrests, went out of his way to preemptively deny that they had anything to do with allegations of Russia hacking U.S. elections. But since the story is so bizarre and the details are so sketchy, Western media quickly lost interest.

Here’s what’s known with a reasonable degree of certainty: the “Shaltai-Boltai” group had been publicly active for around three years until late 2016, and throughout that time…

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