The Dallas Morning News
U.S. hits Russia with new sanctions
Biden team retaliates for election interference and massive cyberattack
WASHINGTON — In its first attempt to punish Moscow for attacks on U.S. elections and federal agencies, the Biden administration on Thursday announced strong sanctions against a host of Russian companies and individuals as well as the expulsion from the U.S. of 10 Russian diplomats and intelligence officials.
As part of the punitive broadside, the U.S. for the first time officially blamed Russian intelligence for last year’s massive cyberattack on federal agencies and private companies.
The sanctions won rare bipartisan support in Washington, but it remained unclear what impact they would have on the Kremlin, which for the most part has remained impervious to outside pressure.
Thursday’s announcement came two days after President Joe Biden spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone. He cautioned that the United States and Europe would not stand for Russia’s massive military buildup on its border with Ukraine. And he invited his Russian counterpart to a summit in a third country.
Such a summit is probably on hold now. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, reacting in Moscow, said the sanctions were illegal, would invite “reciprocal” actions and were not conducive to a meet
ing of the two presidents. He also suggested that Putin might withdraw his participation in next week’s climate conference hosted by the U.S.
The 10 Russian diplomatic staff members who were expelled included members of the Russian intelligence services, the White House said.
Ties to Trump
The sanctions imposed Thursday had been anticipated for some time. The targets include Russian hackers believed responsible for infecting computer software widely used by government and private networks in the U.S., including the Treasury, Energy and Homeland Security departments, as part of what was called the Solarwinds breach. U.S. officials, who are still calculating the damage done and how to prevent it, alleged that it was part of an intelligence-gathering mission to accrue U.S. secrets for the Russian government.
The officials also said Putin ordered cyber and disinformation campaigns to help Donald Trump in his unsuccessful bid for reelection as president. Russian intelligence operatives spread conspiracy theories to undermine faith in the process and then fanned a false narrative of widespread fraud, the Treasury Department said.
Sanctions will punish six Russian companies involved in cyberespionage and 32 people and entities involved in election interference, the Treasury Department said. All the targets will be barred from doing business with U.S. entities, and any assets they have in the U.S. will be frozen.
Among those named was Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian and Ukrainian political consultant known to have worked for Russian intelligence services.
With the allegation against him, Thursday’s announcement added a new detail to the story of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, in which Trump won the electoral vote.
According to the Biden administration, Kilimnik provided Russian intelligence with “sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy.” Kilimnik, an alleged Russian agent, was an associate of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016.
Although it was previously known from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that Manafort provided campaign
information to Kilimnik, U.S. officials had not said what they thought he did with it. Trump last year pardoned Manafort, who had been convicted of bank fraud, tax evasion and illegally lobbying for Ukraine.
“These actions are intended to hold Russia to account for its reckless actions,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. “We will act firmly in response to Russian actions that cause harm to us or our allies and partners.”
Nevertheless, he and other U.S. officials said they still
hoped for a “more stable and predictable” relationship with Russia despite it having reached a historic post-cold War low point.
“We have no desire to be in an escalatory cycle with Russia,” said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We do not seek a downward spiral.”
Yet a downward spiral seemed likely. Past such actions have triggered a tit-for-tat series of reciprocal expulsions of both U.S. and Russian diplomats. Putin also might react by deepening his military threats against neighbors such as Ukraine, experts said.
By Thursday evening, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan, had been summoned to appear before the Russian Foreign Ministry. The conversation “will be difficult for the American side,” ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. “Such aggressive behavior will undoubtedly receive a decisive rebuff, and the response to sanctions will be inevitable.”
Thursday’s sanctions did not come in response to reports that Russian operatives paid Taliban militants to hunt and kill U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, officials said. For the first time, a senior administration official said that the U.S. intelligence community now had “low to moderate” confidence that the reports were true.
An extra punch
Imposing sanctions on Moscow is a frequent punishment that has done little to rein in Putin, experts say. Even under Trump, who admired Putin, Washington sanctioned Russia in some of the harshest actions since the Cold War, including the expulsion from the United States of 60 suspected Russian spies and the closure of several Russian consular offices.
Treasury Department officials said the latest sanctions pack an extra punch because they will expand existing prohibitions on U.S. financial firms trading in Russian government debt, a potentially crippling development for the Russian economy.
Reaction to the sanctions in Washington was generally positive.
“It is long overdue that Vladimir Putin and his thugs suffered the consequences of their malign behavior that for too long went unchecked,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-calif., who as chair of the House Intelligence Committee oversaw much of the probe of Russian cyberspying, praised Biden’s actions but said sanctions alone “will not be enough to deter Russia’s misbehavior.”
Rep. Michael Mccaul of Austin, the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, welcomed the sanctions but added that he was “concerned they will ultimately fail to establish a credible deterrent.”
This is the second round of sanctions Biden has imposed on Russia. Last month, the U.S. targeted a group of Russian officials and government agencies over a nearly fatal nerve agent attack on the opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Around the same time, Biden was asked in an interview whether he thought Putin was a killer.
“I do,” Biden replied.