After Russian 800-meter runner Yulia Stepanova and her husband exposed the systematic state-sponsored doping regimen pervasive in Russian athletics, the couple and their young son fled to the United States, fearing for their safety. Now it seems that their fears were well founded. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) announced Aug. 13 that hackers had illegally accessed Stepanova’s account in an agency database, which contains, among other personal information, her family’s address in the United States. (Athletes are required to maintain current address information in the WADA system to facilitate unscheduled, off-competition drug testing.) WADA also noted that no other accounts had been accessed in the data breach, suggesting that Stepanova, who has since moved again with her family, was the specific target of the hack.
That someone’s personal information was compromised by a data intrusion is hardly surprising in this age of widespread hacking. It is unusual, however, for hackers to home in on a single person in the course of an attack. Given the strange and sometimes fatal incidents that have befallen other figures involved in the Russian doping scandal, Stepanova and her family had good reason to relocate immediately in the wake of the breach. The investigation that the runner and her husband incited, and the mass suspension of Russian athletes from the Summer Olympics that it precipitated, was a black eye for the Russian government. And Moscow does not take kindly to embarrassment. The Kremlin’s track record in dealing with those who cross it — even people who seek refuge in the West — proves that the Russian government has a long reach, made all the longer by the country’s prodigious hacking capabilities.
Moscow’s Wet and Dirty Work
Even before the Cold War began, the Soviets were involved in a long line of assassination and kidnapping operations that spanned the globe. To describe these kinds of dirty jobs, the KGB and its predecessors (the Cheka and NKVD, among others) used the term “wetwork,” or “wet affairs.” Some wetwork operations, such as Leon Trotsky’s 1940 assassination in Mexico City, became the stuff of legend, while many others — for instance, the 1937 killing of NKVD defector Ignace Reiss in Lausanne, Switzerland — remain relatively obscure. The activities persisted throughout the Cold War and even after it, though the Soviet Union’s implosion interrupted wet business as usual. As a post-Soviet Russian state emerged, President Mikhail Gorbachev and, later, his successor, Boris Yeltsin, worked to dismantle the powerful intelligence apparatus that could (and on occasion nearly did) overthrow them, leaving security officers to fend for themselves.
Once former KGB officer and FSB director Vladimir Putin assumed Russia’s presidency in 1999, the country’s intelligence agencies began to regain their power. By the mid-2000s, they were back to their old tricks: At home and abroad, critics of Putin’s government, including journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, began dying mysteriously.
As Putin’s power has grown, his intelligence services have grown commensurately bolder. Though the powers that be invariably try to deny any role in or knowledge of the murders, for the most part, the operations have been overt or only very thinly veiled. In Ukraine, for instance, Russian intelligence has used local surrogates to conduct operations, as in the July 20 assassination of Pavel Sheremet in Kiev. Perhaps my favorite example of the Russian intelligence services’ blatant approach was the December 2007 death (ruled a suicide) of Oleg Zhukovsky, a senior executive at VTB Bank who opposed the Kremlin’s takeover of that institution. According to Russian officials, Zhukovsky was so distraught at the thought of the acquisition that he tied himself to a chair, placed a bag over his head, pinned a suicide note to himself and threw himself into his swimming pool to drown.
But Russian operatives do not limit their flagrant political killings to the former Soviet Union: Enemies of the Kremlin have been assassinated in Europe, the Middle East and even the United States. Russian intelligence is suspected of involvement in the mysterious death of Boris Berezovsky in London in March 2013, seven years after the audacious Litvinenko assassination occurred there. The Russians are also suspected in the death of Mikhail Lesin, a Putin adviser-turned-defector who was bludgeoned to death in a Washington hotel room.
More recently, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported July 7 that Alexander Poteyev, a former officer in Russia’s foreign intelligence service, had died under mysterious circumstances in the United States. In June 2010, Poteyev allegedly betrayed a network of 10 Russian agents — including Anna Chapman, the now-famous redheaded Russian spy — operating illegally in the United States. The U.S. government has made no comment on the death, and Interfax did not mention how it had learned of Poteyev’s death, or even how he died. But if Poteyev is indeed dead, the Interfax story is a not-so-subtle way of claiming credit for it.
Getting Away With Murder
Since returning to wetwork in the Putin era, Russian intelligence has encountered very few consequences to deter it from such nefarious activities. Russian operatives involved in assassinations in Turkey and Qatar were caught and subsequently released back to Russia. Despite publicly accusing Russian agents of murdering Litvinenko with tea spiked with polonium-210, the British government has little hope of ever gaining custody of the killers. Unable to interrogate the responsible parties, authorities in the United Kingdom have no evidence to implicate the likely masterminds behind the assassination, Russia’s intelligence leadership. The United States has tried to sanction Russian officials for their role in illicit affairs. In 2012, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act to punish the officials responsible for the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009. The Russians responded by barring Americans from adopting Russian children by American parents and blacklisting several U.S. officials.
In light of Russian intelligence’s far-flung and often unabashed operations, the Stepanova family is right to fear for its safety, even though it is living in the United States. After all, Stepanova and her family would not be the first people associated with the Russian doping scandal to die under mysterious circumstances. On Feb. 3, the chairman of Russia’s anti-doping agency, who resigned in disgrace after Stepanova’s revelations came to light, died suddenly. Less than two weeks later, the agency’s former president succumbed to an unexpected massive heart attack.
A New Tool of the Trade
The Stepanova case, moreover, demonstrates how the Kremlin’s massive hacking apparatus can be used to target enemies of the government. Regardless of location, hiding from an intelligence agency such as Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) or Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) is tricky, even for those who abide by the strict conditions of the witness protection program. For a high-profile athlete participating in international competitions, it is even harder. Beyond the vulnerabilities of a database such as WADA’s, professional sporting competitions offer potential attackers access to these targets, since they are scheduled long in advance and their participants are not difficult to locate. Conducting an assassination at a high-profile competition would be a challenge, but the event may provide a good opportunity to install malware on a target’s phone or computer that could be used to track them for a later operation.
The threat posed by Russian wetwork goes beyond defectors like Litvinenko or Poteyev, or journalists like Politkovskaya and Sheremet. Anyone who is considered an obstruction or a liability to the Kremlin is potentially at risk. As previous assassinations have shown, this includes businessmen like Zhukovsky who oppose the Kremlin’s economic plans and lawyers like Magnitsky who speak out against official corruption. The Stepanovs, too, fall into this category, having blown the whistle on Russia’s doping system. Under a sweeping new counterterrorism law enacted in July, nearly anyone with a point of view that differs from Moscow’s can be labeled a terrorist. This means that almost anyone — in Russia or beyond — could wind up on the Kremlin’s list of enemies.