Hacked emails connected to a top aide of Russian President Vladimir Putin show that the Kremlin official kept in contact with separatists during the time that Russia annexed Crimea.
The Ukrainian group "Cyber Hunta" released a trove of emails on Tuesday associated with Vladislav Surkov, the Putin aide. The emails cover September 2013 to November 2014, the period when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Surkov has been sanctioned for his role in the Ukraine crisis.
The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab broke down initial findings of the leak, assessing the messages as authentic. The emails show that Surkov received documents from a high-level separatist official located in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, including a list of casualties and expense reports for a government office located in Donetsk. He received "corrections" to a document that was later published by purported "public representatives of the Donbass" calling for an end to the Ukrainian "anti-terrorist operation."
Dalibor Rohac, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe at the American Enterprise Institute, described the revelations as unsurprising.
"I think the basic revelation is not exactly news to Ukraine/Russia watchers: namely that the Kremlin has been actively involved helping the separatists in Eastern Ukraine, organizing them, steering their propaganda and disinformation activities (e.g. Surkov apparently edited letters ‘from Donbass residents'), and making other strategic calls," Rohac said in an email.
"It also shows how the Kremlin has been trying to undermine the current government, stirring political instability, and trying to find political allies inside the country, with the ambition of pushing Ukraine towards an early election," Rohac said, adding that, so far, all evidence "indicates the leaked emails are genuine."
Surkov, a Russian political operative and the Kremlin's so-called "grey cardinal," is the chief architect of what he calls "sovereign democracy" in Russia. Surkov has been targeted by U.S. and EU sanctions imposed on Russian individuals and entities involved in the ongoing Ukraine conflict.
Surkov is reportedly in charge of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and the People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk that declared their sovereignty in 2014. Recently, Surkov has led unsuccessful negotiations with the United States over the situation in Ukraine.
Hackers reportedly accessed Surkov's personal email account through Russia's largest search engine, Yandex. The cache of hacked communications includes more than 2,300 emails.
Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine's Interior Ministry, wrote on Monday that the hacked documents were "credible." The Digital Forensic Research Lab on Tuesday said it is "fairly clear that the emails are authentic," citing the hackers' publication of a nearly one-gigabyte Outlook data file.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, cast doubt on the authenticity of the emails in comments to Russian media outlets. Peskov told state-run media outlet TASS that Surkov "doesn't use electronic mail."
"Therefore, someone must have sweated quite a bit to compose this document," Peskov said, though he didn't specify which "document" he meant. "I can tell you: This is not him," he added.
In a June 2014 email to Surkov and others, Denis Pushilin, the chairman of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, sent a document listing casualties between May 26 and June 6 of that year in Donbass.
The same month, Pushilin sent a list of expenses in a spreadsheet that appear to have been for a newspaper, a "Ministry of Information," and a press center in Donetsk.
Additionally, a letter supposedly penned by "public representatives of the Donbass" was sent to Surkov by a Russian government official in an email titled "corrections in the text," which was originally sent by an editor of Russian Reporter, a Russian news magazine. A nearly identical letter was later published in the magazine and reported by Russian state-run news outlets, which portrayed the document as a plea from local citizens calling for an end to Ukraine's "anti-terrorist operation."
Many leaked emails contain briefings from Surkov's assistants, including briefings on conditions in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Ukraine.
Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting in eastern Ukraine ever since Moscow's intervention in 2014. The conflict intensified in July and August of this year after Russia accused Ukrainian intelligence agents of plotting terror attacks on critical infrastructure in Crimea.