Why Is Russia Finally Letting (Dubious) Details of Its Involvement in DNC Hack Out?

In recent days there have been a number of stories in Russia implicating the FSB (note, not GRU) in issues related to the DNC hack. First, there was this article from The Bell, claiming that the four Russian treason defendants (two of whom were FSB officers) are being prosecuted because they provided inside information to the US about GRU’s involvement in the DNC hack.

But it is impossible to identify which specific cyber group or groups were responsible for last year’s Democratic National Committee hack based on technical traces alone, four cyber experts polled by The Bell confirmed. To prove specifically that the GRU was involved, U.S. investigators would have needed inside sources — preferably with access to confidential state matters, one source explained. Mikhailov had that access.

Relations between intelligence agencies working on the cyber front were strained, one of Mikhailov’s acquaintances said. The FSB and GRU compete for funding and Mikhailov felt the FSB carried out cyber tasks more professionally than the GRU, according to one of his acquaintances.

He used to say that “the GRU breaks into servers in a brazen, clumsy, and brutish manner and it interfered with his own work”, the acquaintance said. Moreover “the GRU’s hackers didn’t even try to cover their tracks”.

The report said that Sergei Mikhailov — who was named (but not charged) the Yahoo hack case — shared information on Russian hackers who wouldn’t work with the FSB with western law enforcement agencies though a cut-out named Kimberly Zenz.

Mikhailov had been working closely with Western intelligence agencies since 2010. Report written for Vrublevsky said that Mikhailov had leaked sensitive information “on Russian cyber-criminals, who had refused to cooperate with him, to a U.S. citizen”. More specifically, Mikhailov reportedly handed the U.S. citizen — a woman — information on Russian state-sponsored hacker attacks against Estonia and Georgia in 2007 and 2008.

Burykh says he found that Mikhailov gave the information to Stoyanov, who then passed it on to  Kimberly Zenz  of the U.S. company iDefense Intelligence. From there, it went to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Then there’s this story, reporting that a hacker tied to the Lurk group, Konstantin Kozlovsky, hacked the DNC on behalf of the FSB.

Then there’s this, from Novaya Gazeta, laying out the news.

NG questions — as I do — why this is all coming out now. Of particular interest, it notes that Kozlovsky’s claims were posted in August, but for some reason the hashtags that would have alerted people to the posted claim were not triggering, meaning the information only got noticed (at least in Russia) now.

Interestingly, the first materials on this page were posted back in August of this year. And despite the fact that sensational publications were accompanied by tags # CIB, # FSB, # Dokoutchaev, # Mikhailov # Stoyanov, # hackers, # Kaspersky, the existence of a personal page Kozlovsky in Facebook for some reason became known only in early December.

Here’s the timeline we’re currently being presented with (I’ve made some additions):

April 28, 2015: FSB accesses Lurk servers with Kaspersky’s help.

May 18, 2016: Kozlovsky arrest.

May 19-25, 2016: DNC emails shared with WikiLeaks likely exfiltrated.

November 1, 2016: Date of Kozlovsky confession.

December 5, 2016: Arrest, for treason, of FSB officers.

August 14, 2017: Kozlovsky posts November 1 confession of hacking DNC on Facebook.

November 28, 2017: Karim Baratov (co-defendant of FSB handlers) plea agreement.

December 2, 2017: Kozlovsky’s claims posted on his Facebook page.

Of particular note, the emails exfiltrated from the DNC and shared with WikiLeaks were probably not exfiltrated until the days immediately after Kozlovsky’s arrest.

As NG notes, this all may well be true (though I wonder why Russia is now letting claims it was involved in the DNC hack go public, after claiming it was uninvolved for so long). But the reason it is coming out now is at least as interesting that it is coming out.

Update: I originally said that Mikhailov was charged in the Yahoo hack. He was described in it, but not charged.

Ruslan Stoyanov and Two Degrees of Separation from Protected Criminal Hackers

Ruslan Stoyanov, the former head of cyber investigations at Kaspersky and now in prison fighting accusations of treason, got some press yesterday when letters he sent to his lawyers got released by a Russian TV station, Dozhd. Moscow Times covered Stoyanov’s accusation that Russia exchanges intelligence related hacking for impunity for foreign cybercrimes.

“The essence of the deal is that the state gets access to the technologies and information of ‘cyberthieves,’ in exchange for allowing them to steal abroad with impunity,” Stoyanov said, claiming that this agreement has lead to “a new crime wave” perpetuated by “patriotic thieves.”

Stoyanov also warned that hackers are liable to turn their attention back to Russia, once their “patriotic fervor” wears off.

Dozhd’s coverage is here, which makes one additional focus of Stoyanov’s letters clear: Stoyanov pits the dangers to Russia of formerly protected hackers engaging in crimes within Russia against his own value to Russia in taking down the Lurk hackers last year. As Stoyanov’s report from last year claims, Lurk’s members managed to steal over 3 billion rubles before they were arrested with the help of Kaspersky.

It’s a nice play to the public, Stoyanov’s attempt to challenge Russia’s accusations of treason by pointing out that protected criminal hackers pose a greater threat to Russia.

But there’s a problem with it (though one of which Stoyanov may be unaware).

Stoyanov’s arrest for treason has been tied to that of FSB officers Sergei Mikhailov and Dmitry Dokuchaev. The best public (and, I believe, partial) explanation for their arrest so far is that the arrest arose, in part, out of an old grudge from spammer Pavel Vrublevsky, who believed Mikhailov and Stoyanov shared information on his operations with the FBI.

But that explanation pre-dates the unsealing of the indictment against four people — including Dokuchaev — for the hack of Yahoo from 2014 to 2016. In the indictment’s description of Dokuchayev and in some of its description of the alleged hacks, it describes an FSB officer 3 who, because he is described as “supervisory,” is likely Mikhailov (which, as I suggested in my original post on this, raises interesting questions about why he wasn’t also charged).

DMITRY ALEKSANDROVICH DOKUCHAEV, also known as “Patrick Nagel,” was a Russian national and resident. DOKUCHAEV was an FSB officer assigned to Second Division ofFSB Center 18, also known as the FSB Center for Information Security. He was an associate ofFSB officer IGOR SUSHCHIN; another, supervisory FSB officer known to the Grand Jury (“FSB Officer 3”), who was the senior FSB official assigned to Center 18; and other FSB officers known and unknown.


From at least in or around December 2015 until May 2016, the conspirators sought access to accounts ofthe former Minister ofEconomic Development of a country bordering Russia (“Victim A”) and his wife (“Victim B”). DOKUCHAEV, SUSHCHIN, and BELAN worked with FSB Officer 3 to access_Victims A and B’s accounts by minting cookies and to share information obtained from those accounts. In one instance, on or about December 18, 2015, FSB Officer 3 provided SUSHCHIN with information regarding a company controlled by Victims A and B. On or about December 21, 2015, DOKUCHAEV sent a cookie for Victim B’s account to SUSHCHIN, who then later that day sent DOKUCHAEV a report on Victims A and B. On or about May 20, 2016, BELAN minted a cookie for the same Victim B account.

And the rest of the indictment describes how Dokuchaev, in particular, worked closely with prominent criminal hacker Alexsey Belan to access Yahoo. The indictment even describes how they helped Belan avoid legal troubles in Russia.

One of the criminal hackers, BELAN, has been the subject of an Interpol “Red Notice” and listed as one of the Federal Bureau ofInvestigation’s (“FBI”) “Most Wanted” hackers since 2012. BELAN resides in Russia, within the FSB’ s jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute. Rather than arrest him, however, the FSB officers used him. They also provided him with sensitive FSB law enforcement and intelligence information that would have helped him avoid detection by law enforcement, including information regarding FSB investigations of computer hacking and FSB techniques for identifying criminal hackers.

That is, Dokuchaev and, at least by presumed extension, Mikhailov, are allegedly involved in precisely the thing Stoyanov is trying to distinguish himself against, protecting prominent hackers so as to use their skills for FSB’s goals.

But then, there are also the reasons to ask whether all that Dokuchaev, at least, was doing was official FSB business. On top of targeting a Russian email provider (which is probably Yandex) via unofficial means, Dokuchaev used a number of tools, such as Yahoo and Paypal, that would be readily accessible to American authorities, but inaccessible to Russian authorities. Which, if he was spying against Russian authorities themselves, might explain why Russia would arrest Dokuchaev for treason.

Along with Stoyanov.

As I said, there’s no reason to assume Stoyanov knows that Dokuchaev just got credibly accused of using Belan to help hack Yahoo. The Yahoo indictment likely got minimal attention in Russia to begin with, and it’s not clear how much access to the media Stoyanov has in prison in any case.

But while his accusation against Russian authorities served its presumed purpose of making a media splash, both in Russia and internationally, given that he was accused of treason along with a guy who does just what he’s claiming, it’s not clear how much it helps his case (except perhaps to distinguish himself from those he got charged with).

The FSB Purge: Two Narratives

I first mentioned the arrest of a Kaspersky researcher for treason last week.  Since then, more of the American press has been focusing on it, often simply assuming that what are now reported to be up to six arrests must have some tie to the Russian hack of the DNC and other election-related targets.

One way or another, the arrests—according to the Russian media accounts—are linked to the country’s hacking of the US election.

Such assumptions don’t even engage with some of the most obvious questions, such as what all these FSB-related arrests would have to do with the hack-and-leak of DNC and Podesta emails allegedly done by Russia’s military intelligence GRU.

Obviously, the timing of the arrests would suggest there might be a connection, but the presumption has been downright sloppy. So in an effort to unpack this story, I’m going to lay out some of the known claimed details

Some of the better English language sources on the arrests are stories in Bloomberg, Guardian, FT, NYT, and Forbes (as well as the Brian Krebs story quoted in detail below).

Committing crimes pre-dating 2012

When news of Stoyanov’s arrest was made public, Kaspersky released a statement saying the activity pre-dated his employment at the security firm, so before 2013. That would seem to rule out involvement in the DNC hack.

Exposing King Servers as key infrastructure in Russian hacks

A more public explanation behind the purge is that Stoyanov and Mikhailov served as sources for the FBI on the investigation into the probes of the state election sites.

On August 18, the FBI released a flash about two probes of US state election websites. Among the details, it released an IP address,, associated with the probe. “The FBI received information of an additional IP address,, which was detected in the July 2016 compromise of a state’s Board of Election Web site.” Why you would need two human sources for this information, I’m not sure, but the implication in this narrative is that it came from the Russians.

On September 2, ThreatConnect released a report analyzing the IP address, tying it to other suspected Russian hacks.

However, as we looked into the 5.149.249[.]172 IP address within the FBI Flash Bulletin, we uncovered a spearphishing campaign targeting Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, Ukrainian Parliament, and German Freedom Party figures from March – August 2016 that fits a known Russian targeting focus and modus operandi. As we explored malicious activity in the IP ranges around 5.149.249[.]172 we found additional linkages back to activity that could be evidence of Russian advanced persistent threat (APT) activity. This connection around the 5.149.249[.]172 activity is more suggestive of state-backed rather than criminally motivated activity, although we are unable to assess which actor or group might be behind the attacks based on the current evidence.

At the time, the guy who owns King Servers, which hosts that IP, Vladimir Fomenko, played dumb, claiming that the entities tied to the election website hacks owed him money and that the FBI had never contacted him but that he’d be happy to provide information.

More recently, Brian Krebs pulled up some of his old reporting to note that Fomenko has long-established ties to spam businessman Pavel Vrublevsky, including with these servers. Vrublevsky has been trying to implicate Mikhaylov and Stoyanov in leaking Russian investigative details to people in the west for years.

Multiple Russian media outlets covering the treason case mention that King-Servers and its owner Fomenko rented the servers from a Dutch company controlled by Vrublevsky.

Both Fomenko and Vrublevsky deny this, but the accusations got me looking more deeply through my huge cache of leaked ChronoPay emails for any mention of Mikhaylov or Stoyanov — the cybercrime investigators arrested in Russia last week and charged with treason. I also looked because in phone interviews in 2011 Vrublevsky told me he suspected both men were responsible for leaking his company’s emails to me, to the FBI, and to Kimberly Zenz, a senior threat analyst who works for the security firm iDefense (now owned by Verisign).

In that conversation, Vrublevsky said he was convinced that Mikhaylov was taking information gathered by Russian government cybercrime investigators and feeding it to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies and to Zenz. Vrublevsky told me then that if ever he could prove for certain Mikhaylov was involved in leaking incriminating data on ChronoPay, he would have someone “tear him a new asshole.”

Krebs’ story would date Stoyanov’s actions to before his ties with Kaspersky, which would explain that part. But it would also suggest this might be product of a long-standing feud — or that the long-standing feud provides cover for a fight for power within the FSB.

One thing that’s interesting about all this is that, for some time, the US intelligence community did not attribute the probes of voter registration databases to Russian intelligence. A September 20 DHS alert attributed it to criminal hackers seeking identity theft data. The October 7 ODNI/DHS statement affirmatively declined to attribute it. It was not until the January 6, 2017 report on the hacks that the IC first blamed Russian intelligence (without specifying whether it was FSB or GRU) for the probes.

So if the FSB purge pertains to revealing details about the voter database probes to US intelligence, the first US public acknowledgment of that intelligence came after most people allegedly involved in exposing the tie had been arrested (though people like former Russian Ambassador Michael McFaul were yapping about such things in public statements, and the WaPo had gotten soft leaks about it). That is, in spite of complaints that US reporting might have set off this molehunt, for the registration databases, the molehunt preceded the IC’s affirmative (public) use of the data.

Hack-and-leaking top Russians

The other major allegation against the Russians is that they were involved with a hacking group Shaltai Boltai (which translates as Humpty Dumpty from Alice in Wonderland). The group has blackmailed and/or exposed the emails of a number of top Russian leaders, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his deputy Arkady Dvorkovich.

Reports claim that Anikeev started the group years earlier, and the FSB either tried to infiltrate it, but then got swept up, or always had ties to it. Ultimately, though, the implication is that FSB was working both sides, using an Anonymous-modeled hacking group to acquire materials on powerful Russians even while, perhaps, using such hackers for Russian ends.

In mid-to-late October, the group released the emails of Vladislav Surkov, the architect of Putin’s Ukrainian policy. There wasn’t much revealed, though it did make it clear planning for Russia’s Ukrainian intervention went back some time. The understanding behind this narrative is that releasing these emails got too close to Putin, which led to the crack-down on the group.

Even when the emails got released, there was no public discussion of the possibility that this was US retaliation against Russia — not even after NBC published a really dick-wagging story on October 14 promising CIA retaliation. That’s the public story, anyway, which was really weird, given that exposing Putin’s plotting in Ukraine would be a really logical retaliation for the DNC hack (even if American exceptionalists like to pretend we would never do a hack and dump). The private story is different, but any private opinions I’ve heard don’t describe who might have conducted such a hack.

It’s also not entirely clear the timing works out. But it’s not clear we’ve got all those details yet.

I’m still working through these issues — and warnings from Russian observers that both of these narratives may just be convenient front stories for something else and/or for pure power consolidation are well taken.

What has also gone unmentioned is that at a time when Russia and the US would be staring each other down on a “cyber” battlefield, Putin just apparently took out a number of the key players in that field. No one has mentioned that, but even if these guys were working both sides in a manner that brought value to Putin, having them removed may leave holes in Russia’s cyber offense for the near future.

Update: This FT piece, based off an interview with what is alleged to be the last remaining Shaltai Boltai member at large, would seem to confirm that that explains the arrests (it explains the SB got FSB handlers in early 2016). Though I’d ask why someone would return from Thailand to apply for asylum in Estonia if Putin were after them.

Known arrestees

Colonel Sergey Mikhailov, deputy head of the Information Security Center at the FSB

Major Dmitry Dokuchaev (AKA Forb), also with ISC

Ruslan Stoyanov, now with Kaspersky but with earlier with cybercrime investigation firm Indryk and before that Ministry of Interior’s Cyber Crime Unit

Journalist Vladimir Anikeev, believed to have been in Ukraine and alleged to have led the hack ofVladislav Surkov

Known dates

August 18: FBI flash identifying new King Servers-related IP address used in probes of election related sites

September 2: ThreatConnect report implicating King Servers

September 5: Obama and Putin discuss hacks at G-20

September 20: DHS alert attributes voter registration probes to criminal hackers in search of PII

September 27: King Servers owner Vladimir Fomenko claims FBI hasn’t contacted him

October 7: ODNI/DHS statement on Russian hacking declines to attribute voter database hacks to Russian state

October 14: CIA preparing possible cyber response on Russia

October 23-25: Hackers release emails of Vladislav Surkov, exposing Putin’s Ukrainian plans

October 31: Obama contacts Putin on red cyber phone for first time

November 9: Anikeev reportedly detained, begins cooperating

November 26: Anonymous White House statement affirms integrity of election

December 4: Arrests of Mikhailov and Stoyanov

December 9: CIA-based leaks (based off recent human intelligence) claim DNC hack designed to get Trump elected

December 13: Last date on (partial) dossier implicating Trump

January 6, 2017: In declassified Russian Hack Report, US Intelligence Community for the first time attributes probes of voter websites to Russian intelligence (not specifying FSB or GRU): “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards.”

January 11: Partial anti-Trump dossier published by BuzzFeed; Christopher Steele flees his home

January 23: GCHQ head Robert Hannigan quits to spend more time with his family

January 25: Kommersant announces arrests