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The Real Russia. Today. New U.S. sanctions against Russia's diabolical divers and cyber companies

Meduza
11:11, 12 june 2018

Tuesday, June 12, 2018 (Happy Russia Day!)

  • Meduza looks at the latest Russian companies targeted by U.S. sanctions
  • 11 people die in a boating collision in Volgograd
  • Late night TV king Ivan Urgant says he isn't emigrating to Israel
  • Russia's culture minister won't be rescuing jailed Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov

The skinny on the latest Yankee sanctions

⚓ Diabolical divers

On Monday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on three more Russian citizens and five companies that American officials say have ties to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). One of these companies, the St.-Petersburg-based “Divetechnoservices,” allegedly “has procured a variety of underwater equipment and diving systems for Russian government agencies,” including the FSB. Washington sanctioned the company’s supposed owner, Vladimir Kagansky, and its supposed general director and manager, Aleksandr Tribun and Oleg Chirikov.

What’s so important about “diving systems”? According to the U.S. government: “Russia has been active in tracking undersea communication cables, which carry the bulk of the world’s telecommunications data.” Last December, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Andrew Lennon, the commander of NATO’s submarine forces, told The Washington Post that “Russia is clearly taking an interest in NATO and NATO nations' undersea infrastructure,” saying the recent level of Russian underwater activity near undersea cables has been unprecedented. Britain's top military commander reportedly said Russia “could imperil” the cables that form the backbone of the modern global economy.

According to the newsletter The Bell, Divetechnoservices has won more than 100 military procurement contracts since 2014 worth 3 billion rubles ($47.8 million). Ninety-five percent of the company’s contracts with the Russian government are military deals. The company’s single biggest contract (1.2 billion rubles, or $19.1 million) was to provide mobile autonomous decompression systems to the Russian Navy’s special forces.

Funneling Canadian mini-subs. In 2012, Divetechnoservices says it supplied Canadian “DeepWorker” underwater vehicles to “a Russian state enterprise.” Russia’s “Yantar” naval ship, which reportedly received one of these mini-submersibles, has been spotted off the coast of various geopolitical hot spots. “The manned submersibles and ROVs are an ideal platform for locating undersea cables and splicing them to add a hardware tap,” the magazine Popular Mechanics wrote in September 2017.

👾 Cyber demons

The Treasury also targeted the Kvant Scientific Research Institute (Meduza wrote about this organization in our deep dive into Russian cyber-defense) and the company Digital Security, which specializes in information security. “As of 2015, Digital Security worked on a project that would increase Russia’s offensive cyber capabilities for the Russian Intelligence Services,” including the FSB, according to the U.S. government. Washington also added the companies ERPScan and Embedi as subsidiaries of Digital Security.

Digital Security is one of Russia’s leading information security consulting companies, and its sole owner, Ilya Medvedovsky, is known as the author of several new ways of attacking network protocols and two books: “Attack on the Internet” and “Attacking Through the Internet.” In 1999, he defended what has been called “Russia’s first hacker dissertation.” Digital Security has some major clients, including Yandex, QIWI, Mail.ru Group, Tele2, and SAP. According to official records, reports The Bell, government contracts made up just five percent of the company’s business in 2017.

Headquartered in Palo Alto, ERPScan works on SAP security (“systems applications and products” — enterprise resource planning software from Germany). Medvedovsky created the company in 2010. Mikhail Baranov, Digital Security’s commercial director, refused to comment on the sanctions, telling The Bell: “It’s a strange story.”

Hours after the U.S. sanctions were announced, Medvedovsky tweeted that his companies have found vulnerabilities in IT software for years, “making lots of enemies.” “It was just a matter of time until someone lobbied for something like this,” he wrote, promising to continue his work “to make this world cleaner.” On June 12, in a statement shared on Facebook, Digital Security said it’s never participated in any political operations.

Eleven dead in Volgograd 🚢

Eleven people died in Volgograd on Monday, when a barge tore through a catamaran near a cargo port in the city’s Voroshilovsky district. Investigators have opened a criminal case into water safety violations, and an emergency responder reportedly told the news agency TASS that the man piloting the catamaran, Dmitry Khakhalev, didn’t notice the barge and made no effort to avoid the collision. He also apparently failed to switch on his identification lights. Khakhalev’s vessel was also overloaded, it turns out, which is why the death toll was so high.

Sources told reporters that Dmitry Khakhalev is apparently one of Monday’s fatalities. He was a former state official who led the Kalachevsky district’s local government, before he was sentenced to four years in prison for attempted rape and firing a weapon at a recreation center in 2009. He was previously convicted of brawling with a police officer in 2006.

There's Johnny 📺

Ivan Urgant (Russia's king of late night TV) says he isn't emigrating to Israel, though he hasn't denied reports that he and his family have received Israeli citizenship. On Sunday, the Russian-language Israeli newspaper Vesti reported that the Urgants had received Israeli citizenship. On Monday, Urgant said on Instagram that he's only in Israel this week to visit the grave sites of his mother and aunt. Russian law permits dual citizenship.

In late May, the billionaire Roman Abramovich reportedly acquired Israeli citizenship after running into problems renewing his investor's visa in Great Britain.

Russia's Culture Ministry won't be rescuing Oleg Sentsov anytime soon 🎭

Jailed Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov has won lots of supporters with his hunger strike calling for the release of Russia's “Ukrainian political prisoners,” but Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky doesn't appear to be one of them. On June 12, Medinsky told the television network Dozhd that he isn't following Sentsov's hunger strike very closely. The culture minister admitted that he's “worried” about Sentsov's health, but he called the director's hunger strike “a tragedy” and “his own decision and position.” “This doesn't really fall within the Culture Ministry's scope of activity,” Medinsky explained.

Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks in Crimea. There has been an international campaign to lobby for his release. Read Meduza’s summary of why his case matters here. He has been on a hunger strike for Ukrainian political prisoners since May 14. 

Yours, Meduza