Russia Charges Three Cyber-Security Experts with Treason

AP Photo
The Associated Press

Russia has charged three cyber-security experts, one of them an executive at the renowned anti-virus software company Kaspersky, with treason.

The accused are Sergei Mikhailov and Dmitry Dokuchayev, formerly with the FSB intelligence service, and Ruslan Stoyanov of Kaspersky. The BBC cites Russian media reports that Mikhailov was dragged out of a meeting with FSB officers with a bag over his head, a tactic the Russian authorities rarely use these days. There is much speculation this was done to send an unmistakable signal to other FSB personnel.

The Russian government does not provide details about treason cases, so news organizations are left to report on various rumors about the arrests. The BBC offers a few of these rumors:

But the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford in Moscow says claims from anonymous sources continue to circulate around the Russian capital, including one that links the arrests to a Russian server-renting firm accused of involvement in the hacking of voting systems in two US states.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the arrests were not related to the hacking, which Russia denies involvement in.

Other claims suggest that the men had links to a hacking group known as Shaltai Boltai (Humpty Dumpty), best known for digging dirt on senior Russian political figures and making it public.

The Associated Press notes that the Humpty Dumpty group allegedly digs this dirt on behalf of the Ukrainian government and the CIA. Another theory is that a power struggle is going on within Russia’s security services.

“Everyone involved in the case is charged with treason, and in fact, this is the only article, no other charges,” declared Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer who specializes in treason cases. The Kremlin claimed President Vladimir Putin was aware of the charges but perhaps not all of the details.

Pavlov told Radio Free Europe in a phone interview that there are “more than three suspects in the case,” and he is in fact representing a fourth individual, whom he refused to identify. The three known arrests occurred in December.

RFE then quotes an independent Russian paper, Novaya Gazeta, which claims there are a total of six defendants in the case, plus two hackers arrested in November who may or may not be involved. (These two seem to have been associated with the Humpty Dumpty group, however.)

Pavlov also told RFE that the accused were “suspected of passing on classified information to U.S. intelligence, but not necessarily the CIA.”

Novaya Gazeta suggested there could be links between these arrests and hacking attacks on American electoral systems — the actual vote-tallying systems, not the raid on the Democratic National Committee’s email server. Radio Free Europe mentions that none of the anonymous sources linking details about the arrests to Russian media have said these arrests were directly related to the DNC breach.

Time Magazine chips in with some speculation that Mikhailov, Dokuchayev, and Stoyanov were sources for the U.S. intelligence report that concluded Russia wanted to interfere with the election, or that they were sources for the dossier of salacious, unverified material complied by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele and ultimately disclosed by Buzzfeed. It further speculates that these arrests are connected with the mysterious December 26th death of former KGB General Oleg Erovinkin, who was also ostensibly linked to the Steele dossier.

However, The New York Times quotes a statement from Kaspersky that the charges against Stoyanov date from before he joined the company in 2012.

The NYT details an elaborate theory that Mikhailov and his associates were the targets of a revenge plot by a Russian businessman named Pavel Vrublevsky, who was arrested in 2013 for cyber-espionage against a business competitor, possibly due to information provided to U.S. law enforcement and media outlets by Mikailov.