Gee, whatever might have interested the Russians in Burisma? In all likelihood several reasons, but not the least of which is the link it has to American politics at the moment and the grand opportunity to play the Merry Prankster role once again. A security firm that works with the Ukrainian energy company, on whose board Hunter Biden once sat, got successfully penetrated by the GRU:
Russian military spies have hacked a Ukrainian gas company that is at the heart of an impeachment trial of President Trump, who sought last year to pressure Ukraine to investigate the company and its links to Joe Biden’s son, according to a cybersecurity firm.
Beginning in early November, the Russian spy agency known as the GRU launched a cyber “phishing” campaign against Burisma Holdings to trick unsuspecting employees into giving up their email credentials so the hackers could gain access to their email accounts — once again entangling Moscow in domestic U.S. politics, according to Area 1 Security, a Redwood City, Calif., company.
The operation’s launch coincided with a congressional impeachment inquiry into Trump and whether he abused his office by seeking to press Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing a probe of Burisma and Hunter Biden — an action that conceivably would aid Trump’s reelection bid.
That’s certainly one possibility, and one which can’t be discounted. Another is that the penetration itself might have been intended to intensify calls for Trump’s impeachment. The timing of the attack might lend itself to that interpretation too, as congressional hearings into Ukraine-Gate and Burisma were underway at the time. What better way to stoke more paranoia and destabilize the American political system than to goose impeachment even more?
Democrats are already calling this a “deeply disturbing” development, especially because the intel communities didn’t give them a heads-up on it before the Washington Post and New York Times reported it. Adam Schiff already went on television to at least imply that it’s part of a Trump-approved effort by Russia to get him re-elected:
"I have to say, Rachel, I'm a bit distressed to see this for the first time in a newspaper report. If the intel community is aware of this, that should have been brought to our attention by now." -Rep. Adam Schiff on new NYT reporting on Russian hacking pic.twitter.com/mQ7p07fQBn
— Maddow Blog (@MaddowBlog) January 14, 2020
SCHIFF: And I think the other thing that’s apparent from this, if this reporting is correct, is the message that Vladimir Putin has gotten is not to stay out of American elections, but “you’re welcome to get involved in American elections as long as it helps Donald Trump.” That seems to be the message that President Trump has conveyed, and at least the message that Vladimir Putin has received. So we’re going to start by finding out what our intel agencies know about this. I have to say, Rachel, I’m a bit distressed to see this for the first time in a newspaper report. If the intel community is aware of this, that should have been brought to our attention by now. But I don’t find it surprising, I do find it deeply disturbing, and I would hope that maybe both parties can get out ahead of this, even if the president won’t, and condemn any Russian effort to influence the next election.
Er … did our intel agencies know about this? It’s not exactly clear why they would. Burisma isn’t an American company, so unless we’re already penetrating Burisma for our own purposes, why would we know about it? The Russians are at war with Ukraine on at least a low-level basis, so targeting a critical part of their infrastructure isn’t necessarily even related to the US or the election. It’s fascinating, however, to watch the House Intel chair leap to several conclusions even before he asks to be briefed on the development.
It’s not just Schiff, either, as the New York Times notes in its report:
“The attacks were successful,” said Oren Falkowitz, a co-founder of Area 1, who previously served at the National Security Agency. Mr. Falkowitz’s firm maintains a network of sensors on web servers around the globe — many known to be used by state-sponsored hackers — which gives the firm a front-row seat to phishing attacks, and allows them to block attacks on their customers.
“The timing of the Russian campaign mirrors the G.R.U. hacks we saw in 2016 against the D.N.C. and John Podesta,” the Clinton campaign chairman, Mr. Falkowitz said. “Once again, they are stealing email credentials, in what we can only assume is a repeat of Russian interference in the last election.”
The Justice Department indicted seven officers from the same military intelligence unit in 2018.
The Russian attacks on Burisma appear to be running parallel to an effort by Russian spies in Ukraine to dig up information in the analog world that could embarrass the Bidens, according to an American security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. The spies, the official said, are trying to penetrate Burisma and working sources in the Ukrainian government in search of emails, financial records and legal documents.
Worth noting, in the political-connections sense: Area 1 and Falkowitz work with Democrats already. And so far, Falkowitz isn’t answering too many questions, Eddie Scarry notes:
Before we break out the rocket launchers in response to reports that Russian hackers have targeted the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, let’s consider the source of that information: a single cybersecurity start-up, whose founder is a Democrat and who won’t say anything about how he knows that the hacking actually happened. …
Nowhere in the New York Times story nor the Washington Post’s is it mentioned that Falkowitz is providing services to Democrats running for president at no charge. He told me on the phone that Area 1 is charging any candidate $1,337 per year, but campaign donation records show that he donated that exact same amount to the presidential campaigns of Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker. (Falkowitz also gave money to Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy and Republicans Will Hurd and John Kasich, though both Kasich and Hurd have been Trump critics.)
Maybe Russians really have breached Burisma’s internal systems. But I’m not going to take it as fact on the word of a single U.S.-based Democrat-run security firm which, for all we know, might have created this controversy as a publicity stunt.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that the GRU did penetrate Burisma. Again, it’s certainly possible that this could related to the US and the upcoming elections, but it would be nice to get some actual evidence of that first before setting our hair on fire all over again. Russians have been hacking and interfering with our elections for decades now, but have rarely gotten as much mileage out of it as they did in 2016 with such a minimal investment in their strategy. People lost their minds over a $25 million disinformation campaign on social media without ever asking whether it impacted any voting decisions at all, then came up with an unfounded conspiracy theory (several of them, in fact) relating to the DNC hack that all but paralyzed Congress last year. And none of them panned out, which is why Schiff had to shift his impeachment ambitions to Ukraine-Gate. The fact that this purported hack plays right into that narrative seems like an awfully convenient coincidence, at the very least.
If the Russians want to undermine confidence in our elections, Schiff and his colleagues certainly have provided a playbook for it. Hack into a politically connected org that has its shields down and then let the Americans tear themselves to shreds over it, even if the hack itself produces nothing of ultimate value. It’s practically a Twilight Zone episode of Cold War paranoia on a constant rerun cycle.