- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
A Ukrainian hacker group claims to have obtained emails from Vladislav Surkov, a top aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, which detail a purported Kremlin plan to destabilize Ukraine in the coming months.
CyberJunta, the group behind the alleged hack, released email exchanges belonging to Surkov, a scan of passports belonging to Surkov and his family, and 22 pages from documents outlining a plan to support nationalist and separatist politicians and to encourage early parliamentary elections in Ukraine, all with the aim of undermining the government in Kiev.
“It is necessary to create favorable conditions for controllable political forces to enter the new parliament,” said a report released by the hacking group. “As a result of fundamental changes in the Ukrainian political situation, it is possible to achieve the return of the Donbass to Ukraine on Russian terms,” details the alleged plan, referring to the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists. The report added that the best time to take action would be from November 2016 to March 2017.
Oleksandr Tkachuk, the chief of staff to the head of the SBU, Ukraine’s intelligence service, said on TV Tuesday that experts from the agency examined the documents released by CyberJunta, and believe them to be real.
“We only have access to the files released to the public and do not have contacts with the hacker group that released them,” Tkachuk said. “So, we don’t have the ability to determine whether the documents were changed after they were received by electronic mail.”
Often referred to as the “gray cardinal” of the Kremlin, Surkov has been a senior official since Putin assumed office in 1999 and is believed the be the architect of the modern Russian political system. Surkov has served as first deputy chief of the presidential administration, deputy prime minister, and most recently as a personal advisor to Putin on Ukraine and the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Surkov is believed to have played a key role in Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and is on both the United States and European Union’s sanctions lists for helping to orchestrate the land grab. He is the Kremlin’s lead negotiator on the stalled peace talks in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian presidential administration and the SBU declined requests for comment on the alleged hack.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Surkov’s involvement in any plot to foment unrest in Ukraine, and said that the documents released by the hacking group were not real.
“I’ve known Surkov for more than ten years and all sorts of things have always been imputed to him,” said Peskov. “In most cases, it has nothing to do with the real state of things.”
Little is known about the group behind the hack and their origins and motivations. However, CyberJunta says that it is working in conjunction with other hacker groups known as FalconsFlame, RUH8, and Trinity and that they plan to release more documents belonging to Surkov in the coming days.
Democracy Lab’s Ilya Lozovsky contributed to this report.
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