As an impeachment inquiry turned up the heat on Donald Trump over his irregular efforts to investigate rival Joe Biden, Russian military intelligence got to work hacking the Ukrainian gas company that once employed his son Hunter Biden.
Those, at least, are the conclusions of a US cybersecurity firm published this week.
According to Area 1 Security, the Russian campaign to target Burisma Holdings in Kiev began in November.
The mechanism they used was a fairly unsophisticated phishing tactic. First, they created fake web domains imitating the sites of Burisma’s subsidiaries (for example: kub-gas.com instead of kub-gas.com.ua). Then they sent emails to employees inviting them to visit the fake sites and enter their credentials.
According to the security firm’s report, the tactics were successful – the hackers broke into one of Burisma’s servers. It was unclear if they found what they were looking for. Or indeed what that was. But the timing and the scale of the interventions suggested they were looking for information that could be used to undermine the Bidens.
The tactics also seemed to mirror those used against employees of the US Democratic Party in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Then, two hacking groups connected with the Russian state, “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear”, gained access to emails from Democratic Party servers. Compromising material was then leaked and promoted via a network of trolls.
The former group, linked to Russia’s foreign intelligence service, was particularly successful at hacking, evading detection for several months.
According to the authors of the report, the discovery was an “early warning” of significant Russian interventions into the forthcoming 2020 campaign.
The cyber campaign only showed up on the security firm’s monitoring network on New Year’s Eve. According to an American security source quoted in The New York Times, it ran “in parallel” to a more conventional spy operation in Ukraine itself. Burisma, and the Bidens’ connection to it, are obvious targets for dirt digging.
According to some polls, Joe Biden is best placed to beat Donald Trump in 2020. It seems likely this is why president Donald Trump lent his weight to a conspiracy theory alleging that Mr Biden, when he was vice president, tried to fire a Ukrainian prosecutor who was allegedly investigating Burisma.
While the conspiracy theory is bunk, business in Ukraine is rarely entirely clean. Burisma would likely not have appreciated unfriendly investigators rummaging around for possible skeletons.
Burisma Holdings and the Russian Ministry of Defence had not responded to requests for comment by the time of publication.