Georgia and two of its western allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, accused Russian military intelligence (GRU) on Thursday, February 20 of having launched a major cyber attack in late 2019 against this Caucasian country strained relations with Moscow.
In October 2019, around 15,000 Georgian websites, including those of the Presidency, the courts and the media, were affected by this operation. The targeted sites displayed a photo of ex-president Mikheïl Saakashvili, with the inscription in English “I'll be back” (I'll be back).
The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained that a survey carried out by Tbilisi, with the help of information provided by its partners, “Concluded that the cyber attacks had been planned and carried out by the Main Staff Division of the Russian Armed Forces”. “Georgia condemns this cyber attack which goes against international standards and principles”added Tbilisi in a press release, while London and Washington also accused Moscow in a separate press release of being behind this computer attack.
Relations between Russia and Georgia, which aims to one day join NATO, had become extremely bad after the coming to power of the pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004, thanks to a popular movement. In August 2008, the two countries clashed in a short war after which Russia had recognized the independence of two Georgian separatist regions, which it has since maintained troops.
Attacks aimed at “sowing division”
“The GRU's dangerous and shameless cyber-attack campaign against Georgia, a sovereign and independent nation, is completely unacceptable”said British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab.
“The Russian government has a choice: to continue this aggressive attitude towards other countries or to become a responsible partner who respects international law.”
The US State Department has raised concerns “Widespread cyber attacks” against several thousand websites in Georgia, believing that these operations were aimed at “Sow division, create insecurity and undermine democratic institutions”. Washington called on Russia to “Stop this behavior in Georgia and elsewhere”.
The National Cyber Security Center (NCSC), a British cyber security organization, has ruled “With the highest probability that the GRU carried out large-scale disruptive cyber attacks on October 28, 2019”, said the Foreign Office.
Russia denies attacks
Moscow has denied the attacks. “Russia has not planned and does not plan to interfere in Georgian internal affairs in any way”said a deputy foreign minister, Andrey Rudenko.
The attacks also targeted websites of the Georgian government, NGOs and businesses, and disrupted television programs. Mikheil Saakashvili has lived in exile in Ukraine since the end of his second term as president in 2013. He is wanted in Georgia for abuse of power, accusations which he rejects. Several senior officials in his presidential administration have been imprisoned since his party lost the legislative elections in 2012, replaced by the party of “Georgian dream” from billionaire Bidzina Ivanichvili.
Russia's conviction comes in the context of particularly tense relations between London and Moscow since the attempted poisoning in Novitchok – a powerful innervating agent of Soviet conception – in April 2018 of the Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. An arrest warrant was issued against two Russians suspected of having carried out the attack and presented as belonging to the GRU. In October 2018, London accused Russia of being the source of the main global cyber attacks in recent years, against the American Democratic Party, the anti-doping sports agency and even Odessa airport in Ukraine .