Russia launches cyber war in retaliation
BRITAIN: Russia has launched a ‘‘dirty tricks’’ campaign against Britain and the United States in the wake of the Syria airstrikes as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson warned of a need to be prepared for retaliatory attacks.
Whitehall sources last night confirmed a 20-fold increase in ‘‘disinformation’’ being spread by Kremlin-linked social media ‘‘bot’’ accounts since the missile attacks on Syria in the early hours of Saturday.
There are fears this could be a precursor to a full-scale campaign of cyber attacks by Moscow, and Johnson said Britain would take ‘‘every possible precaution’’ to guard against it.
It comes as Labour Jeremy Corbyn attempts to force a Commons vote on Syria that could make it harder for Prime Minister Theresa May to mobilise the armed forces without the permission of MPs.
Corbyn will today ask the Speaker to grant an emergency debate, that is likely to lead to a vote, which will scrutinise May’s judgment in authorising the air strikes.
May will today tell the Commons that bombing Syria was in Britain’s ‘‘national interest’’ to prevent future chemical attacks ‘‘within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere’’ as she invokes the Salisbury poisonings as justification for the UK’s participation in the US-led strikes.
She will also say ‘‘it was the right thing to do’’ to avert further suffering caused by chemical attacks and that ‘‘we are not alone – there is broad-based international support for the action we have taken’’.
Russia, which backs the Assad regime in Syria, had repeatedly warned in the buildup to the cruise missile strikes that there would be consequences if they went ahead, and Johnson said that Russia ‘‘gives us every possible signal and evidence that we have to beware’’.
Asked if he was worried about cyber attacks on the national health service, the national power grid and other infrastructure, he said: ‘‘I think we have to take every possible precaution and when you look at what Russia has done, not just in this country in Salisbury but the attacks on TV stations, on the democratic processes, on the critical national infrastructure, of course we have to be very, very cautious indeed.’’
In the US, the Pentagon said there had been a surge in Russian ‘‘troll’’ accounts promoting false claims about the missile attacks, including that 70 per cent of the missiles had been shot down.
Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said: ‘‘The Russian disinformation campaign has already begun. There has been a 2000 per cent increase in Russian trolls in the last 24 hours.’’
In the UK, a Whitehall source said Russia was engaging in a ‘‘dirty tricks’’ campaign, while Government sources said officials would be analysing Kremlinlinked social media ‘‘bot’’ accounts to assess the extent to which Brit- ain had been targeted by them.
There were, however, genuine questions last night over whether the attack by 105 American, British and French missiles had obliterated Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities or not.
Brigadier-General Zaher alSakat, who served as head of chemical warfare in the powerful 5th Division of the Syrian military until he defected in 2013, said the most strategic sites – including a depot called Taqsis in the central province of Homs – were not hit in Saturday’s strikes.
The Russian military, which spoke with Assad yesterday, said he was in a ‘‘good mood’’ after the strikes, privately relieved that the three countries had not targeted more vital infrastructure.
Corbyn’s call today for an emergency debate will be countered by May, who will make her own application for a debate, but without a meaningful vote at the end of it.
Other parties are also said to be considering submitting applications. It will be down to the Speaker to decide what happens.
If a debate goes ahead it will happen on Tuesday afternoon (local time), and Julian Smith, the Tory chief whip, has issued a three-line whip to Conservative MPs in case a vote goes ahead.
The debate applications will be made under Standing Order 24 of the Commons rules and, while they do not result in binding votes, any defeat for May over Syria would weaken her politically and make it harder in future to take military action without the backing of MPs.
Several Tories have already said they believe May should have put the matter to a vote, increasing the danger of a defeat for the Government.
It emerged yesterday that a British Astute-class submarine, which had widely been expected to take part in the cruise missile strikes, did not fire any weapons after it was involved in an undersea cat and mouse game with Russian submarines for several days.
At least one Russian sub is understood to have been joined by two Russian frigates and an antisubmarine aircraft searching for the British vessel as it maneouvred to within missile range of Syria.
The UK, the US and France have launched a new bid at the United Nations to investigate chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
The three allies circulated a joint draft resolution at the Security Council. – Telegraph Group
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson says that after other Russian actions, Britain has to be ‘‘very, very cautious indeed’’.