Yevgeny Nikulin, the Russian man dubbed the “Putin” of the Russian hacking world by another colleague, is set to be sentenced in a U.S. federal court after being convicted of hacking LinkedIn, DropBox, and other Internet companies.
Nikulin’s sentencing, set for U.S. District Court in San Francisco on September 29, will bring to a close a nearly four-year process that began with his surprise arrest in the Czech Republic in October 2016. Prosecutors have asked for a nearly 12-year prison sentence for Nikulin after a federal jury in July found him guilty on nine counts related to the hacking of several major U.S. social-media companies. Lawyers for Nikulin, who pleaded innocent to the charges, have asked the judge for leniency, citing among other things, childhood abuse at the hands of his father and the suicide of his older brother. They asked the judge to sentence him to time served: essentially, to the time in U.S. custody since his arrest in Prague in October 2016. Nikulin, who was extradited to the United States 17 months after his arrest, was targeted by U.S. law enforcement as part of a multiyear campaign to arrest some of the most notorious Russian hackers and suspected cybercriminals. More than a dozen have been arrested in various countries, a development that has enraged Moscow, which has accused Washington of “hunting” Russian citizens. The campaign undermined years of cooperation between U.S. law enforcement and Russian intelligence on various cyberinitiatives.
But it has also yielded insights into how Russian intelligence agencies, including the FSB, allegedly used hackers as part of their operations -- including efforts, documented by U.S. intelligence and U.S. congressional committees, to interfere in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
In one filing submitted by prosecutors in Nikulin’s trial, U.S. officials revealed they had interviewed a hacking colleague of Nikulin’s in Moscow. The man, identified in court documents as Nikita Kislitsin, met with FBI agents at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in April 2014, where he offered details on Nikulin and other hackers.
According to the filing, Kislitsin described Nikulin as being very wealthy with a reputation for owning expensive sport cars. Kislitsin said Nikulin’s hacking skills were well known, and he called him the “Putin of the hacking world” -- a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kislitsin was indicted himself in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on separate hacking charges. He later went on to work for a prominent Moscow cyberresearch company Group-IB. Court papers also revealed an alleged business relationship between Nikulin and Aleksei Belan, who was later sanctioned by the United States and then indicted for his alleged role in the theft of more than a billion e-mail addresses belonging to Yahoo. Some of Belan’s efforts were directed by an officer at Russia’s main intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, according to court papers filed in Nikulin’s trial and in the Yahoo indictments that named Belan, and two Federal Security Service officers.