Thursday, April 29, 2021

Russians Pranking Washington Think Tanks?

This is from an opinion piece in the Washington Post by Atlantic Council scholars Melinda Haring and Damon Wilson:

Early this month, senior staff here at the Atlantic Council received an email claiming to come from Leonid Volkov, the chief of staff to imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Volkov is someone we know and respect, so we immediately opened the message. The email was well-written and sympathetic. It praised our work and requested an on-camera meeting with the top three executives at our organization, one of Washington’s leading think tanks.

But the message was fake. The people who sent it were trying to lure us into a potentially sensitive or even embarrassing online conversation. Spear-phishing attempts like this have been arriving more and more frequently in in-boxes at think tanks and nongovernmental organizations in Washington and elsewhere. Thankfully, we smelled a rat and contacted Volkov through other means to check whether he had sent the message. He had not. With that confirmed, we warned our colleagues in other organizations, some of whom had received the same note on the same day.

In March, the leaders of another Washington-based nongovernmental organization received a similarly personalized email with a request for an on-camera meeting. The set-up was similar: The message claimed to come from exiled Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.


The two Atlantic Council scholars say they suspect Russia is behind this, but they aren't 100% sure.  They note that the Russian Prosecutor General's Office named the Atlantic Council an undesirable organization in 2019, adding that the think tank is often the target of cyberattacks "mostly designed to gain information about our staff, our work, and our engagements." 

They also note that back in 2014, a denial-of-service attack against Atlantic Council brought down its website as it was hosting then-Vice President Joe Biden for a major conference promoting a "whole and free" Europe.