Expelled Russian hackers linked to Swiss laboratory testing novichok
The Dutch government expelled two alleged Russian spies this year after they were accused of planning to hack into a Swiss chemicals laboratory where novichok nerve agent samples from the Salisbury attack were analysed, it has emerged.
The men were arrested in The Hague this spring as part of an operation involving British, Swiss and Dutch intelligence agencies.
The Swiss daily newspaper Tages-Anzeiger reported that the men were carrying equipment that could be used to break into the Spiez laboratory’s IT network when they were seized.
Isabelle Graber, communications chief at the Swiss intelligence service, the Federal Intelligence Service (FIS), said in a statement: “The Swiss authorities are aware of the case of Russian spies discovered in The Hague and expelled from the same place.
‘We contributed to the prevention of illegal actions against a critical Swiss infrastructure’ Isabelle Graber Swiss intelligence service
“The FIS participated actively in this operation together with its Dutch and British partners. The FIS has thus contributed to the prevention of illegal actions against a critical Swiss infrastructure.”
Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned in Salisbury on 4 March. The Spiez laboratory, near Berne, subsequently confirmed a British claim that the Skripals had been victims of the military-grade nerve agent novichok. The laboratory has also been investigating poison gas attacks by the Syrian regime backed by the Kremlin.
It is unclear why the two expelled men were in The Hague, which hosts the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The Swiss federal office for civil protection said in June that the Spiez laboratory had been targeted by hackers said to be from the Russian government-affiliated group Sandworm. It is not clear whether the expulsion of the two spies from the Netherlands was linked.
The Sandworm hackers posed as the laboratory’s organising committee and circulated a document with instructions for a forthcoming conference on chemical weapons in September. They then targeted chemical weapons experts who had been invited to the conference and opened the document.
“Someone posed as the Spiez laboratory,” Kurt Münger, of the Federal Office for Civil Protection, said at the time. “We immediately informed the conference invitees that the document was not ours and pointed to the danger. The laboratory itself has not registered any outflow of data.”
In an interview with the Russian TV channel RT, two men identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, who have been accused by the UK government of poisoning the Skripals, admitted they had visited Switzerland on a number of occasions.
Petrov, who claims to be in the fitness and nutrition business, but is accused with Boshirov of being a member of the GRU, the Russian intelligence agency, said: “We went to Switzerland on holiday. We did have some business trips there as well, but I can’t really remember when it was.”
The Spiez laboratory “advises national authorities and international organisations in implementing and developing arms control and nonproliferation agreements”, according to its website. It is also “involved in international missions relating to arms control and environmental protection”.
In April Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said he had received confidential information from the Spiez laboratory that the nerve agent used to poison Sergei Skripal in Britain could be a substance never produced in the Soviet Union or Russia.
He said the documents pointed at a western-designed nerve agent, the socalled BZ substance, as a likely cause of the poisoning, thus excluding Russia’s involvement in the attack. He did not disclose the source of his confidential information but said: “We are asking the OPCW why the information which reflected the conclusions of specialists from the Spiez laboratory was completely omitted from the final document.”
His allegations were later rejected since the BZ substance was only being used in the lab as a counter-sample.
The role of the OPCW has become a hotly contested diplomatic issue as Russia tries to rebut claims that forces loyal to the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, have repeatedly used chemical weapons in Syria.
The controversy comes as Russia faces accusation of preparing to stage chemical weapons attacks in the rebelheld Idlib region.
▼ Samples of nerve agent from the attack in Salisbury, below, were identified as novichok in Switzerland
▲ The Spiez laboratory near Berne was a planned target for cyber-attack