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Netherlands incident highlights growing 'hybrid war' between Russia and West

The headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is seen from the parking lot of the adjacent Marriot Hotel, in The Hague, the Netherlands, on Oct. 8, 2018. (Mainichi/Kosuke Hatta)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands/LONDON -- "Hybrid warfare," mixing various methods such as military means, information manipulation and political maneuvering to "attack" other countries, is shaking international society. The Mainichi Shimbun went to the frontlines between Russia, which has been pointed to as actively engaging in hybrid warfare and European countries searching for countermeasures as caution toward Moscow increases.

"I need to talk to some guests," one of two investigators dressed in plain clothes told the receptionist at the Marriot Hotel in The Hague, the Netherlands, on the evening of April 13, 2018. According to hotel General Manager Vincent Pahlplatz, no sooner had the investigators named four guests from Russia did the men in question enter the hotel lobby. The investigators called out to the men to come with them, and headed toward a service door toward the parking lot. Later, one investigator returned to the lobby, telling Pahlplatz, "These people will leave the country tonight." He received no other explanation.

It was half a year later that the hotel learned the truth about what had occurred. Just before noon on Oct. 2, Pahlplatz received a phone call from intelligence authorities. "We'd like to inform you there is going to be a press conference, and your hotel will be mentioned," the caller said. "It's good for you to watch, because you will finally know the reason why we took your guests."

About an hour later, Dutch Minister of Defense Anna Theodora Bernardina "Ank" Bijleveld-Schouten told the press, "On the 13th of April this year, the Netherlands Defense Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) carried out an operation to disrupt a GRU operation targeting the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons -- the OPCW -- in The Hague."

GRU is the abbreviation for the Russian "Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff," a Russian intelligence body that has been active since the Soviet era. The four guests who vanished from the hotel that day had been Russian spies, operating out of a rental car in the hotel parking lot adjacent to OPCW headquarters, trying to infiltrate the organization's Wi-Fi network. They had reportedly been discovered and deported from the Netherlands.

Just after the announcement was made by the Dutch government, the United States Department of Justice also held a press conference, announcing that a total of seven Russian information agents had been indicted on charges of being involved in planning cyber-attacks across several nations.

The setup of the hacking equipment in the trunk of a rental car covered with a men's coat that was used by Russian spies to try to infiltrate the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is shown in this undated photo provided by the Dutch Ministry of Defense.

Three days before the deportation, on April 10, the four Russian men entered the country via the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol to the northeast of The Hague from Moscow on diplomatic passports. There, they were met by personnel from the Russian Embassy in the Netherlands. By the following day, the MIVD had identified the four men as GRU intelligence agents, and began tracking their movements. As information came in from cooperating nations, suspicion that GRU was planning a cyberattack on the OPCW grew stronger. The men were even seen taking pictures of the OPCW building from their room at the Marriot and the surrounding area.

Then, in the afternoon of April 13, the spies packed hacking devices into the trunk of a rental car parked in the hotel lot, hiding the equipment under a men's coat, and positioned the car so that the tail end was facing toward the OPCW building. The distance between the vehicle and the building was a mere 30 meters, separated by a steel fence. As soon as the men booted up their hacking equipment and begun trying to infiltrate the building's Wi-Fi network, the Dutch investigators that had them under surveillance jumped into action, calling out to Pahlplatz in the lobby and whisking the men away.

But why were the four men trying to launch a cyberattack on the OPCW? At that time, the OPCW was investigating the chemical substance used in an attempted assassination that had occurred in March 2017 in northern England. In the incident that targeted a former GRU officer who was a double agent for Britain and his daughter, the British government announced that the Russian government was involved on the basis that the Soviet nerve agent Novichok had been used in the attack.

Commodore Onno Eichelsheim, the head of the MIVD, said during a press conference on Oct. 4 that the "four men who were active here in the Netherlands in the period (from April 10-13) only had one goal in mind, and that was to break into the networks of the OPCW." From the items that the four men were carrying, it was found that they had also been planning to visit the area surrounding an OPCW research facility in Switzerland, Eichelsheim said. The MIVD also presented items such as a taxi receipt found among the men's possessions that showed they had been picked up from an area near the GRU building in Moscow as evidence.

The same day as the MIVD's announcement, an organization under the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters, an intelligence and information assurance body, also disclosed that GRU had engaged in targeted cyberattacks of the United States Democratic National Committee headquarters and the World Anti-Doping Agency, aligning itself with the MIVD's findings. Former British diplomat Duncan Allan, who specializes in Russian affairs, explained, " I think it speaks to a growing sense of anger and frustration, in many capitals, over the last four or five years about Russia. There's clearly been a growing sense of frustration and anger about what Russia has been doing beyond its borders, particularly in Ukraine," alluding to the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014.

During a press conference on Oct. 12, the Ambassador of Russia to the United Kingdom Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko claimed that the incident in the Netherlands as well as the assassination attempt is "a campaign which is directed against my country in order to discredit" Russia, and denied any government involvement.

As the information war between Russia and Europe continues to build up tension, the interception of the three-day mission in The Hague was only a single battlefield.

(Japanese original by Kosuke Hatta, Brussels Bureau, and Junichi Yano, London Bureau)

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