US Further Punishes Russia for Cyberattacks, Election Meddling
By Steve Herman April 15, 2021
The United States cannot allow a foreign power to intervene with impunity in American elections, President Joe Biden said Thursday, after he took action to punish Russia for that and a major cyberattack.
"Today I've approved several steps, including expulsion of several Russian officials, as a consequence of their actions," Biden said at the White House. "I've also signed an executive order authorizing new measures, including sanctions to address specific harmful actions that Russia has taken against U.S. interests."
Biden said he told Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call earlier this week that he could have gone further but chose to be proportionate and does not seek to escalate tensions between Washington and Moscow.
"If Russia continues to interfere with our democracy, I'm prepared to take further actions to respond," he added.
Thirty-two entities and individuals linked to Moscow are being sanctioned for disinformation efforts and interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Ten personnel from Russia's diplomatic mission in Washington were expelled, including "representatives of Russian intelligence services," according to the White House.
The Biden administration is formally blaming the SVR, the external intelligence agency of Russia, for the massive cybersecurity breach discovered last year involving SolarWinds, a Texas-based software management company that allowed access to the systems of thousands of companies and multiple federal agencies.
The Russian spy agency reacted by calling the accusation "nonsense" and "windbaggery."
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it told U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan that the new sanctions are a serious blow to bilateral relations and that Moscow's response to them will follow soon. The Foreign Ministry, in a statement, added that it was entirely inappropriate for Washington to warn Moscow against further escalation.
Besides Thursday's widely anticipated moves by the Biden administration, "there will be elements of these actions that will remain unseen," said a senior U.S. official speaking to reporters on condition of not being named.
Biden, during his seven minutes of remarks in the East Room on Thursday afternoon, said he believed he and Putin would meet for a summit this summer somewhere in Europe.
At that meeting, the president said, the two countries "could launch a strategic stability dialogue, to pursue cooperation in arms control and security," as well as address such issues as reining in nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, the coronavirus pandemic and "the existential crisis of climate change."
U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, said the president's actions demonstrate the United States "will no longer turn a blind eye to Russian malign activity." But Schiff, in a statement, predicted sanctions alone will not be enough to deter Russia's misbehavior.
"We must strengthen our own cyber defenses, take further action to condemn Russia's human rights abuses, and, working in concert with our allies and partners in Europe, deter further Russian military aggression," Schiff said.
"I am glad to see the Biden administration formally attributing the SolarWinds hack to Russian intelligence services and taking steps to sanction some of the individuals and entities involved," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner. "The scale and scope of this hack are beyond any that we've seen before and should make clear that we will hold Russia and other adversaries accountable for committing this kind of malicious cyber activity against American targets."
Numerous Republican members of Congress, while praising the president's action, are calling for more measures â€” particularly to halt the controversial Nord Stream 2 project.
"If the Biden administration is serious about imposing real costs on the Putin regime's efforts to undermine U.S. democratic institutions and weaken our allies and partners, then it must ensure the Russian malign influence Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is never completed," House Foreign Affairs Committee lead Republican Michael McCaul said in a statement.
Nord Stream 2 is a multibillion-dollar underwater gas pipeline project linking Russia to Germany. Work on the pipeline was suspended in December 2019 after it became a source of contention between Russia and the West.
Nord Stream officials said Russia resumed construction on the gas pipeline in December. The United States has opposed the joint international project because of possible threats to Europe's energy security. Nord Stream 2 is intended to double the annual gas capacity of an existing Nord Stream pipeline.
"Nord Stream 2 is a complicated issue affecting our allies in Europe," Biden replied to a reporter following his speech. He said that he has been opposed to the project for a long time and it is "still is an issue that is in play."
Biden's administration had already sanctioned seven Russian officials and more than a dozen government entities last month in response to Russia's treatment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
The U.S. actions taken Thursday expanded prohibitions on primary market purchases of ruble-dominated Russian sovereign debt, effective June 14.
"There's no credible reason why the American people should directly fund Russia's government when the Putin regime has repeatedly attempted to undermine our sovereignty," said a senior administration official in explaining the move. "We're also delivering a clear signal that the president has maximum flexibility to expand the sovereign debt prohibitions if Russia's malign activities continue or escalate."
Russia has largely ignored previous U.S. sanctions, which were narrower and primarily targeted individuals.
"These are 'unfinished business' sanctions that telegraph the Biden administration's more forceful approach to dealing with Russia. The measures are dialed to make good on Biden's promise to significantly impose costs on Russia without provoking a downward spiral in relations," said Cyrus Newlin, associate fellow with the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"I think we could continue to see targeting against the Russian intelligence agencies, potentially against Russian government figures and their families, which is something that many sanctions experts have been pushing for," according to Nina Jankowicz, a Wilson Center disinformation fellow. "This is only the tip of the iceberg of the full range of responses available to the U.S. government, both public and nonpublic, that we can take in response to Russia's malicious cyberactivity."
"The economic consequences for Russia will be fairly minor: The Russian financial system is much more insulated from sanctions than it was in 2014, and new restrictions on sovereign debt don't extend to secondary markets. I suspect Moscow will respond reciprocally with diplomatic expulsions, but preserve political space for a bilateral summit, which the Kremlin places high value on," said Newlin, of CSIS.
"The Biden administration has reserved more punishing sanctions options in the event of further Russian aggression in Ukraine," Newlin added. "These could be an expansion of sovereign debt restrictions to secondary markets or measures targeting Russian state-owned companies and banks. Against the backdrop of Ukraine, today's measures also serve as a warning shot."
Jankowicz said she agreed with that assessment, noting "the timing of this is pretty significant, because we've seen a buildup of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border, the most significant buildup since 2014."
According to Andrea Kendall-Taylor, senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, this package of sanctions does not really relate to what is going on with Ukraine. She terms it the Biden administration's way of wrapping up unfinished business with other issues, allowing a pivot "to a more proactive, future-oriented relationship with Russia."
VOA's Katherine Gypson and Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.
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