A group of Ukrainian hackers has released thousands of emails from an account used by a senior Kremlin official that appear to show close financial and political ties between Moscow and separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine.
The cache published by the Ukrainian group CyberHunta reveals contacts between President Vladimir Putin's adviser Vladislav Surkov and the pro-Russia rebels fighting Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine's National Security Service said Wednesday the emails were real, although they added the files may have been tampered with. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the published emails as a sham, saying Wednesday that Surkov doesn't use email.
Russian journalist Svetlana Babaeva told The Associated Press that the emails from her in the cache were genuine. “I sent those emails,” Babaeva said, referring to three emails in the leak discussing arrangements for an off-the-record meeting between Surkov and editors at her publication.
Russian businessmen Evgeny Chichivarkin, who lives in London, said in a Facebook post Wednesday that emails attributed to him in the cache were genuine, as well.
An AP check has also proven that at least some of the phone numbers and email addresses from the cache are genuine.
The email address for Surkov does not appear to be a personal account, but instead an address used by Surkov's office and managed by his assistants. One email sent from the account includes scans of passports belonging to Surkov, his wife and children.
Analyst Aric Toler from the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab also authenticated some material in the email dump by matching drafts sent to the account with almost identical articles that subsequently appeared in the Russian press.
The large quantity of routine messages included in the 2,337 emails indicated much of it was genuine, Toler said.
The email cache includes messages sent to Surkov by separatist leader Denis Pushilin with rebel casualty lists and expenses for the operation of a press center in the rebel capital, Donetsk. Another email from the office of Russian billionaire Konstantin Malofeev, who reportedly has ties to the rebels, contains a list of ministers in the separatist government prior to their official announcement.
A series of 2014 emails from Georgy Bryusov, deputy head of Russia's Wrestling Federation, includes a suggestion to create a nationalist group ready to “fight and defeat” the Maidan, the Kiev square where pro-European protesters gathered before driving the nation's former Russia-friendly president from office. It is unclear if Surkov responded. Bryusov hung up the phone when asked by the AP if he wrote the messages.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine that erupted in April 2014 after Russia's annexation of Crimea has killed more than 9,600 people. A 2015 agreement has helped reduce the scale of fighting, but clashes have continued and efforts to negotiate a political settlement have stalled.
Surkov, who is under Western sanctions for his role in the Ukraine crisis, has conducted negotiations with high-ranking U.S. officials over Ukraine and, earlier this month, accompanied Putin to Berlin for talks with leaders of Germany and France. A longtime associate of Putin, Surkov had been a key architect of the Kremlin's domestic politics.
CyberHunta describes itself on its website as a group of Ukrainian hackers opposed to “foreign aggression” and promised to “extract and analyze” email correspondence from high-level Russian officials.
Messages left with the group were not returned. Internet records show the group's site was registered a year ago via a U.S. privacy protection service.