US expels Russian diplomats, imposes sanctions for hacking

The Biden administration on Thursday announced expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats and imposed sanctions against 32 individuals and entities accused of attempting to interfere in last year's presidential election.

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US expels Russian diplomats, imposes sanctions for hacking
Among the individual companies sanctioned were websites that U.S. officials say operate as fronts for Russian intelligence agencies and spread disinformation, including articles alleging widespread voter fraud in 2020. (Image: PTI file)

The Biden administration announced Thursday the U.S. is expelling 10 Russian diplomats and imposing sanctions against dozens of companies and people, holding the Kremlin accountable for interference in last year's presidential election and the hacking of federal agencies.

The sweeping measures are meant to punish Russia for actions that U.S. officials say cut to the core of American democracy and to deter future acts by imposing economic costs on Moscow, including by targeting its ability to borrow money.

The sanctions are certain to exacerbate tensions with Russia, which promised a response, even as some experts said the measures appeared tailored to avoid an out-of-control escalation of retaliatory acts between the two countries.

Sanctions against six Russian companies that support the country's cyber efforts represent the first retaliatory measures against the Kremlin for the hack familiarly known as the SolarWinds breach, with the U.S. explicitly linking the intrusion to the SVR, a Russian intelligence agency.

Though such intelligence-gathering missions are not uncommon, officials said they were determined to act because of the operation's broad scope and the high cost of the intrusion on private companies.

The U.S. also announced sanctions on 32 individuals and entities accused of attempting to interfere in last year's presidential election, including by spreading disinformation.

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

The actions, foreshadowed by the administration for weeks, signal a harder line against Putin, whom Trump was reluctant to criticize even as his administration pursued sanctions against Moscow.

They are the administration's second major foreign policy move in two days, following the announcement of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. Until now, President Joe Biden has focused on the coronavirus pandemic and economy in his first months in office.

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The 10 diplomats being expelled include representatives of Russian intelligence services, the Biden administration said. They were selected on the basis “that they were acting in a manner inconsistent with their status in the United States,” a senior official said.

Other measures are expected as well, though the administration is not likely to announce them. Officials have been advising that their response to Russia would be in ways both seen and unseen.

The sanctions announced Thursday are the latest in a series of actions that successive presidential administrations have taken to counter Russian behaviour seen as antagonistic. Both Trump and Barack Obama expelled individual diplomats during their presidencies.

Some experts suggest this latest round, even while not guaranteed to curb cyberattacks, might have more resonance because of its financial impact: The order makes it more difficult for Russia to borrow money by barring U.S. banks from buying Russian bonds directly from the Russian Central Bank, Russian National Wealth Fund and Finance Ministry.

It could complicate Russian efforts to raise capital and give companies pause about doing business in Russia.

The impact of the sanctions and the U.S. willingness to impose costs will be weighed by Putin as he evaluates his next steps, though he is unlikely to make “a 180” pivot in his behavior, said Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs.

“The issue is, how can we push back against Putin's aggression, while at the same time keeping open channels of communication and continuing to cooperate with Russia in areas of mutual interest,” Fried said. “And it seems to me the Biden administration has done a pretty good job framing up the relationship in exactly this way.”

Eric Lorber, a former Treasury Department official, said the administration, is “surely trying to balance putting pressure on Russia, pushing back on Russia, while at the same time, not engaging in full-fledged economic warfare.”

The White House did not impose sanctions related to separate reports that Russia encouraged the Taliban to attack U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, saying instead that Biden was using diplomatic, military and intelligence channels to respond.

Reports of alleged “bounties” surfaced last year, with the Trump administration coming under fire for not raising the issue directly with Russia. Administration officials said Thursday they had low to moderate confidence in that intelligence.

Among the individual companies sanctioned were websites that U.S. officials say operate as fronts for Russian intelligence agencies and spread disinformation, including articles alleging widespread voter fraud in 2020.

The individuals who were targeted include Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian and Ukrainian political consultant who worked with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and who was indicted in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

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