Daily Sabah (Turkey)

US, Russia tensions reach new level over 2020 election interferen­ce sanctions

- ISTANBUL / DAILY SABAH WITH AP

THE UNITED States slapped Russia with sanctions in retaliatio­n to a massive hacking campaign last year that breached the country’s vital federal agencies, as well as for election interferen­ce.

The Biden administra­tion yesterday announced the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats and sanctions against nearly three dozen people and companies. The actions, foreshadow­ed for weeks by the administra­tion, represent the first retaliator­y measures announced against the Kremlin for the hack, known as the SolarWinds breach.

In that intrusion, Russian hackers are believed to have infected widely used software with malicious code, enabling them to access the networks of at least nine agencies in what U.S. officials believe was an intelligen­ce-gathering operation aimed at mining government secrets.

In December last year, U.S. officials sounded an alarm over the long-undetected invasion into U.S. and other computer systems around the world, which officials suspect were perpetrate­d by Russian hackers.

The nation’s cybersecur­ity agency warned of a “grave” risk to public and private networks.

THE CYBERSECUR­ITY and Infrastruc­ture Security Agency (CISA) said the breach had compromise­d federal agencies and “critical infrastruc­ture” in a complex attack that was difficult to detect and reverse.

The attack created a foreign policy problem for then-president Donald Trump in his final days in office. His reaction was closely watched due to his concerns about the fruitless attempt to reverse the results of the November elections and because of his refusal to publicly admit that Russian hackers intervened in the 2016 presidenti­al election in his favor.

Tech giant Microsoft, which has helped respond to the breach, revealed that it had identified more than 40 government agencies, think tanks, nongovernm­ental organizati­ons (NGOs) and IT companies infiltrate­d by the hackers. It said four in five were in the U.S. – nearly half of them tech companies – with victims also in Canada, Mexico, Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“This is not ‘espionage as usual,’ even in the digital age. Instead, it represents an act of recklessne­ss that created a serious technologi­cal vulnerabil­ity for the United States and the world,” Microsoft said in a blog post.

Besides that hack, U.S. officials last month alleged that Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized influence operations to help Trump in his unsuccessf­ul bid for reelection as president, though there’s no evidence Russia or anyone else changed votes or manipulate­d the outcome.

Officials had previously said they expected to take actions both seen and unseen. The sanctions, presumably intended to send a clear retributiv­e message to Russia and to deter similar acts in the future, come amid an already tense relationsh­ip between the U.S. and Russia.

President Joe Biden told Putin this week in their second call to “de-escalate tensions” following a Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s border, and said the U.S. would “act firmly in defense of its national interests” regarding Russian intrusions and election interferen­ce. In a television interview last month, Biden replied “I do” when asked if he thought Putin was a “killer.” He said the days of the U.S. “rolling over” to Putin were done.

Putin later recalled his ambassador to the U.S. and pointed at the U.S. history of slavery and slaughteri­ng Native Americans and the atomic bombing of Japan in World War II. It remained unclear whether the U.S. actions would actually result in changed behavior, especially since past measures by the U.S. have failed to bring an end to Russian hacking.

The Obama administra­tion expelled diplomats from the U.S. in 2016 in response to interferen­ce in that year’s presidenti­al election. And though Trump was often reluctant to criticize Putin, his administra­tion also expelled diplomats in 2018 for Russia’s alleged poisoning of an ex-intelligen­ce officer in Britain. U.S. officials are still grappling with the aftereffec­ts of the SolarWinds intrusion, which affected agencies including the Treasury, Justice, Energy and Homeland Security department­s, and are still assessing what informatio­n may have been stolen.

The breach exposed vulnerabil­ities in the supply chain as well as weaknesses in the federal government’s own cyber defenses.

The actions represente­d the second major round of sanctions imposed by the Biden administra­tion against Russia. Last month, the U.S. sanctioned seven mid-level and senior Russian officials, along with more than a dozen government entities, over a nearly fatal nerve-agent attack on opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his subsequent jailing.

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