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US Further Punishes Russia for Cyberattacks, Election Meddling

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Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Coordination Center of the Russian Government in Moscow, Russia, April 13, 2021.

The United States is taking action to punish Russia for various "harmful foreign activities," including cyberattacks, election meddling and aggression in the Crimea region.

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 accusations "nonsense" and "windbaggery."

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it had told U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan that the new sanctions were a serious blow to bilateral relations and that Moscow's response to them would follow soon. The Foreign Ministry, in a statement, added that it was entirely inappropriate for Washington to warn Moscow against further escalation.

In a letter to Congress, U.S. President Joe Biden informed lawmakers that he had issued an executive order "declaring a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States" posed by specified harmful foreign activities of Russia's government.

"Our objective here is not to escalate. Our objective here is to impose costs for what we feel are unacceptable actions by the Russian government," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

Besides Thursday's widely anticipated moves by the Biden administration, "there will be elements of these actions that will remain unseen," and additional measures will be enacted if Moscow's behavior does not change, a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters.

Psaki said that despite Russia's behavior and the actions taken by the president, Biden's invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin for a summit remained open.

Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., looks on before a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 15, 2021.
Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., looks on before a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 15, 2021.

Congressional reaction

U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, said the president's actions demonstrated that the United States "will no longer turn a blind eye to Russian malign activity." But Schiff, in a statement, predicted sanctions alone would 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 — particularly to halt the controversial Nord Stream 2 project.

FILE - Committee Ranking Member Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, speaks during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on Capitol Hill, Sept. 16, 2020.
FILE - Committee Ranking Member Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, speaks during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on Capitol Hill, Sept. 16, 2020.

"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.

The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch, while commending the administration for the latest sanctions, said he considered them "less than a half step forward. What is missing is a robust effort to actually stop the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. To change Russian behavior, the administration must target Putin and impose real consequences."

US sanctions

Biden, according to the White House, told Putin in a phone call this week that the United States "will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to Russia's actions, such as cyber intrusions and election interference."

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 & 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 cyber activity."

"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 at CSIS.

"The Biden administration has reserved more punishing sanctions options in the event of further Russian aggression in Ukraine," added Newlin. "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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