LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - A European Union sanctions plan to punish computer hackers is not directed at Russia or any one single country, Lithuania’s foreign minister said on Monday, as Italy came under pressure from a group of EU members states to back the proposal.
Seven EU countries including Britain, the Netherlands and Lithuania are pushing for the EU to be able to impose sanctions more quickly on specific individuals anywhere in the world, freezing their assets in the bloc and banning them from entry, according to an EU document obtained by Reuters.
Russia has made cyber and electronic warfare a key part of its military operations, Western officials say, and Britain, the Netherlands and the United States have accused Moscow of conducting a global campaign of computer hacks against the West.
But Rome, where the anti-establishment government wants to have better ties with Russia, fears the sanctions would alienate Moscow and it opposes the EU plan, according to a confidential document seen by Reuters.
“We would not target a single geography. This is not against Russia by default,” Lithuania’s Linas Linkevicius told Reuters before a meeting with other EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.
“If Russia attacks us, we will target Russia. If someone else attacks us, then we will target them,” he said.
Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s co-ruling far-right League, has expressed his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and has rejected allegations of Russian meddling in Western elections.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt will try to reassure his Italian counterpart Enzo Moavero Milanesi on Monday that the proposal, which London hopes to have agreed before it leaves the EU next March, is not against Russia, diplomats said.
Belgium, Sweden and Poland are also broadly in favor but want more discussion, a second internal document showed. EU diplomats hope EU leaders could back the sanctions plan in their final statement at a summit in Brussels on Thursday.
“It is only a matter of time before we are hit by a critical operation with severe consequences on the EU and member states,” the three-page proposal document said, urging action on cyber defenses which have been under discussion since 2015.
“We need to be ready to respond,” it said.
EU and NATO diplomats believe China and North Korea, as well as Russia, have developed sophisticated computer hacking weapons and cybersurveillance software to spy on and undermine the West, often using criminal groups to mask the origin of such attacks.
The EU cyber regime plan follows a similar sanctions mechanism formally agreed by ministers on Monday to punish chemical weapons’ attacks by targeting people blamed for using banned munitions regardless of their nationality.
Editing by Richard Balmforth