UK says Russia’s GRU behind massive Georgia cyber-attack

Pirveli websiteImage copyright PirveliImage caption Some websites, such as that of TV channel Pirveli, were replaced with an image of former President Mikheil Saakashvili in the hack

A huge cyber-attack which knocked out more than 2,000 websites in the country of Georgia last year was sponsored by Russia, the UK has said.

Georgian national TV was also targeted in the October attack.

The UK government said the GRU, or Russian military intelligence, was behind the “attempt to undermine Georgia’s sovereignty”.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the attack as “totally unacceptable”.

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said that the GRU was “almost certainly” behind the attacks, which affected pages including the presidential website. It said the attack was the first significant example of GRU cyber-attacks since 2017.

In many cases, website homepages were replaced with an image of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, and the caption “I’ll be back”.

This is the latest element of an ongoing campaign of pressure by the UK against Russian intelligence since the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury two years ago. The aim is to try and deter Russian activity by exposing it.

A notable aspect of this attribution is that it relates to events which took place relatively recently, in October 2019. One of the targets was Georgian broadcasters.

The GRU’s targeting of broadcasters goes back at least to 2015 and a takedown of the French TV5Monde channel. That led to concern about what they might do against other broadcasters in other countries.

This is seen as part of Russia’s tactics of hybrid warfare, or grey-zone activities, which are designed to destabilise countries.

The problem for the UK, though, is that so far there is little sign of the GRU being deterred.

A key test will come with the US election this year, and whether it attempts to interfere in that as it was accused of doing in 2016.

“The scale of this attack is something we haven’t seen before,” Prof Alan Woodward, cyber-security expert at Surrey University in the UK, said at the time.

Who is Mikheil Saakashvili?

Mr Saakashvili served two terms as president in Georgia between 2004 and 2013.

He gave up his Georgian citizenship in 2015, when he become governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region.

He was deported from Ukraine in 2018 after falling out with his predecessor – but his Ukrainian citizenship was restored in May 2019.

Mr Saakashvili is wanted in Georgia on criminal charges, which he claims are politically motivated.


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