In the eerie world of international espionage, nothing of late has topped the official US accusation that Russian president Vladimir Putin plotted to put US president Donald Trump in power. Now, the tale has become even more salacious with the reported arrest of three Russian cyber experts, one of whom was perp-walked out of a meeting with a bag over his head, and the suspicious death of a former KGB general.
Russia experts say the episode suggests a possible purge related to the US election hack. In a twist of Kremlinology, others say Putin may only be pretending to have arrested and killed cyber operatives. Or, say still others, neither observation may be true. “Can we really trust Russian news?” asks Dave Aitel, a former analyst with the US National Security Agency, and now CEO of Immunity, a cyber intrusion protection firm.
The story of the arrests appears to have broken at the Russian newspaper Kommersant on Jan. 25. The paper reported (link in Russian) the arrests of Sergei Mikhailov, who heads the Center for Information Security, an arm of the Russian intelligence agency known by the acronym FSB; and Ruslan Stoyanov, a senior researcher with Kaspersky Lab, the computer security company.
Both men were last seen the first week of December. The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that (Russian), in a Stalin-style touch, a bag was suddenly thrown over Mikhailov’s head during a meeting of fellow intelligence officers, and he was led out. Mikhailov has not been seen since. The third arrest was of Dmitry Dokuchayev, a hacker known by the name “Forb.”
In all three cases, the charge is treason, according to Russian news accounts.
From here, the story gets hazy. One way or another, the arrests—according to the Russian media accounts—are linked to the country’s hacking of the US election. One suggestion is that those arrested are among the sources that led US intelligence agencies to conclude categorically that Russia hacked the election, that Putin ordered the hack, and that the objective was to help Trump.
Russian media suggest that one or more of the trio either leaked details of Russia’s role directly to American intelligence, or to Christopher Steele, the former British spy believed to have compiled the so-called Trump dossier. The dossier is a 35-page memo that suggested various links between Trump and Russia, involving information that allegedly made him vulnerable to extortion.
Which leads to the Dec. 26 death of a former KGB general named Oleg Erovinkin. An initial news account at the Russian website Life.ru said Erovinkin had been killed, shot twice in the head. That version quickly morphed into vaguer accounts of a death-under-investigation.
But the larger interesting fact related to Erovinkin’s death was that Steele’s memo cites a a source close to Igor Sechin, the Putin intimate and chairman of Rosneft. And Erovinkin—a long-time senior aide to Sechin—must be that source, a number of the news accounts speculate. Thus, according to these news accounts, there is a link between the Steele memo and Erovinkin’s death.
A big question is why the Kremlin, given its controls over almost all the country’s media, wanted this news out. Among the guesses is that the Kremlin wants firmer confirmation for the US, and perhaps the world, that it in fact did hack the US election.
Aitel, the cyber expert, says the answer is simpler—that the news was “too big not to leak. It is not going to go unnoticed that Kaspersky’s lead researcher went missing.”