U.K. spy chief warns Russia looking for cyber targets

AP file Photo / Frank Augstein
Jeremy Fleming, head of the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), in London in February 2019.

LONDON (AP) — A U.K. intelligence chief warned that the Kremlin is hunting for cyber targets and bringing in mercenaries to shore up its stalled military campaign in Ukraine.

Jeremy Fleming, who heads the GCHQ electronic spy agency, praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “information operation” for being highly effective at countering Russia’s massive disinformation drive spreading propaganda about the war.

While there were expectations that Russia would launch a major cyberattack as part of its military campaign, Fleming said such a move was never a central part of Moscow’s standard playbook for war.

“That’s not to say that we haven’t seen cyber in this conflict. We have — and lots of it,” Fleming said in a speech in Canberra, Australia, according to a transcript released in London on Wednesday..

He said GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre has picked up signs of “sustained intent” by Russia to disrupt Ukrainian government and military systems.

“We’ve seen what looks like some spillover of activity affecting surrounding countries,” Fleming said. “And we’ve certainly seen indicators which suggest Russia’s cyber actors are looking for targets in the countries that oppose their actions.”

He provided no further details. He said the U.K. and other Western allies will continue to support Ukraine in beefing up its cybersecurity defenses.

Fleming also added more confirmation that Russian mercenaries are being drawn into the fray, saying the private Wagner Group was preparing to send “large numbers of personnel” to Ukraine to fight alongside Russian soldiers.

The United States and the European Union consider the Wagner Group to be a surrogate of the Russian military. The Kremlin denies it even exists.

Wagner is “looking at relocating forces from other conflicts and recruiting new fighters to bolster numbers. These soldiers are likely to be used as cannon fodder to try to limit Russian military losses,” he said.

U.K. officials said a day earlier that they expected Wagner to send up to 1,000 mercenaries to take part in combat operations in Ukraine after the regular Russian military suffered heavy losses.

Fleming also said Russian President Vladimir Putin “massively misjudged” his chances for a swift military victory in Ukraine.

China, which wants to play a role in setting rules for new global governance, should beware of risks from its close alliance with Russia, which “willfully and illegally ignores them all,” he said.