The UK is “absolutely confident” Russian intelligence is behind an attempt to sabotage or steal coronavirus vaccine research, the foreign secretary said, condemning the cyber attack as “outrageous and reprehensible”.
Dominic Raab told Sky News it was important to call Vladimir Putin’s government out for what he called “egregious” behaviour at a time when “the world is coming” to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
He did not say if any information had been stolen by the hackers uncovered earlier this week by US, Canadian and British intelligence agencies.
The comments will fuel tensions with Moscow amid another criminal investigation into Russian groups the UK has accused of trying to interfere in last year’s general election.
Mr Raab said the cyber spies trying to steal virus vaccine information were engaged by the very highest levels of the Kremlin. Moscow denies the claim.
He told Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “We’re absolutely confident that the Russian intelligence agencies were engaged in a cyber attack on research and development efforts and organisations in this country and internationally with a view either to sabotage or to profit from the R&D [research and development] that was taking place.
“And I think the point is: First of all we’ve seen this as part of a wider systematic approach to cyber taken by Russia.
“And at the time that the world is coming together to try and tackle COVID-19, particularly come up with a global solution for a vaccine, I think it’s outrageous and reprehensible that the Russian Government is engaged in this activity.
“So what we’re doing with our allies is making sure people know, making sure the organisations know so that they can better defend against it, but also just calling Russia out, we will do this.
“Now you will see us holding Russia to account and making sure that the world knows the nature of the reprehensible behaviour that they’re engaged in.”
Mr Raab added: “As a leading member of the international community, a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia should be engaged in that collaborative international effort.”
Russia’s ambassador to the UK Andrei Kelin said the claims make “no sense”
“I don’t believe in this story at all, there is no sense in it,” he told the BBC.
Mr Raab hit back, telling Sky News: “Of course he will come on and deny the attack on the R&D in relation to vaccines.
“Russia always does this when it’s behaved in such an egregious way. They denied responsibility for the Salisbury attack in 2018 and we’re calling them out.
“It’s important as with Salisbury, as with cyber attacks and the other nefarious behaviours Russia engages in, we are going to hold them to account and call them out.
“I’m not surprised in the least the Russian ambassador is wheeled out to deny it.”
Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy told Sky News the party “got it wrong on Russia” because the leadership under Jeremy Corbyn “prevaricated and equivocated” and let an “authoritarian regime… off the hook”.
“I believe the Conservatives have been especially slow to wake up to the threat that is posed by the current Putin administration and we should have been much quicker to act,” she said.
While the Foreign Office vows to take strong steps against the Kremlin, the government is underwriting “to a huge extent” the activities of Russian state-backed gas giant Gazprom through the UK Export Finance scheme in a “very confused approach”, she added, calling for a “much more strategic approach to Russia”.