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Biden retaliates for Russia hacking

U.S. expels 10 envoys, sanctions companies by Compiled Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | April 16, 2021 at 7:06 a.m.
“We cannot allow a foreign power to interfere in our democratic process with impunity,” President Joe Biden said Thursday at the White House in announcing the actions against Russia. More photos at arkansasonline.com/416dc/. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

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

The 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 President Joe Biden said the administration could have taken even more punitive measures but chose not to in the interest of maintaining stability.

"We cannot allow a foreign power to interfere in our democratic process with impunity," Biden said at the White House.

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

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_8obUtv2y4]

Though such intelligence-gathering missions are not uncommon, officials said they were determined to respond 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 election, including by spreading disinformation. U.S. officials alleged in a declassified report last month that Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized influence operations to help former President Donald Trump in his bid for reelection, though there's no evidence Russia or anyone else changed votes.

Amid a large Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine and in Crimea, the U.S. also joined with European partners to impose sanctions on eight people and entities associated with Russia's occupation of Crimea, the peninsula that it annexed in 2014.

The SVR is known primarily for espionage operations and was also involved in the intrusion of the Democratic National Committee six years ago. The administration said U.S. intelligence agencies had "high confidence in its assessment of attribution" to Russia. The finding comports with the findings of private cybersecurity companies.

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 private supply chain, as well as weaknesses in the federal government's cyberdefenses.

Inside U.S. intelligence agencies, there have been warnings that the cyberattack -- which enabled the SVR to place "back doors" in computer networks -- could give Russia a pathway for malicious activity against government agencies and corporations.

HARDER LINE

Thursday's 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.

Gallery: Washington, D.C., 4-15-2021

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

Biden said Thursday that when he advised Putin on Tuesday of the forthcoming measures -- which included expulsion of the 10 diplomats, some of them representatives of Russian intelligence services -- he told the Russian leader "that we could have gone further but that we chose not to do so."

"We want," he said, "a stable, predictable relationship."

Even so, Russian officials spoke of a swift response, with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warning that "a series of retaliatory measures will come in the nearest time."

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said a response is "inevitable." The U.S. ambassador was summoned to a meeting with Russian officials, she said.

"Such aggressive behavior will of course receive a decisive response," Zakharova said. "In Washington, they should know there will be a cost for the degradation of bilateral relations. Responsibility for what is happening lies wholly with the United States."

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

SERIES OF ACTIONS

The sanctions are the latest in a series of actions that successive presidential administrations have taken to counter Russian behavior seen as antagonistic. Past measures by the U.S. -- both Trump and former President Barack Obama expelled diplomats during their presidencies -- have failed to bring an end to Russian hacking.

But experts suggest this latest round, even while not guaranteed to curb cyberattacks, might have more resonance because of its financial impact: The executive 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" degree 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 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 that they had only low to moderate confidence in that intelligence.

Among the companies sanctioned are 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 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.

The Treasury Department said Thursday that Kilimnik provided campaign polling data and strategy to Russian intelligence services. Mueller's office said it had been unable to determine what Kilimnik had done with the polling data after getting it from the Trump campaign.

Also on the sanctions list is the Kremlin's first deputy chief of staff, Alexei Gromov; several individuals linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to Russia's president, nicknamed "Putin's chef" for serving Kremlin functions; and several front companies the U.S. says helped Prigozhin evade previous sanctions.

SUMMIT PROSPECTS

Administration officials have made clear in their contacts with Russia that they are hoping to avoid a "downward spiral" in the relationship, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity after the sanctions announcement.

Biden has also raised the prospect of a summit with Putin.

But the president told Putin to "deescalate tensions" after the 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" for Putin were done.

Putin later recalled his ambassador to the U.S. and pointed at the U.S. history of slavery and slaughtering American Indians and the atomic bombing of Japan in World War II.

Information for this article was contributed by Eric Tucker, Aamer Madhani, Zeke Miller, Vladimir Isachenkov, Daria Litvinova and Matthew Lee of The Associated Press; and by Michael D. Shear, David E. Sanger, Steven Erlanger and Andrew E. Kramer of The New York Times.

President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Joe Biden leaves a news conference on Russia sanctions Thursday in the East Room of the White House. In expelling 10 diplomats and imposing new sanctions, Biden signaled a harder line against Moscow.
(AP/Andrew Harnik)
President Joe Biden leaves a news conference on Russia sanctions Thursday in the East Room of the White House. In expelling 10 diplomats and imposing new sanctions, Biden signaled a harder line against Moscow. (AP/Andrew Harnik)
The Russian flag flies Thursday on the grounds of the Russian Embassy in Washington. After the U.S. imposed sanctions Thursday, Russian officials vowed a swift series of retaliatory measures.
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)
The Russian flag flies Thursday on the grounds of the Russian Embassy in Washington. After the U.S. imposed sanctions Thursday, Russian officials vowed a swift series of retaliatory measures. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Coordination Center of the Russian Government in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. The centre was set up as a line of communication with the whole of Russia for analysing and collecting information, promptly using big data and solving arising problems. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Coordination Center of the Russian Government in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. The centre was set up as a line of communication with the whole of Russia for analysing and collecting information, promptly using big data and solving arising problems. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
The entrance gate of the Embassy of the Russian Federation is seen in Washington, Thursday, April 15, 2021. The Biden administration has rolled out a sweeping set of sanctions on Russia over its election interference, hacking efforts and other malign activity. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
The entrance gate of the Embassy of the Russian Federation is seen in Washington, Thursday, April 15, 2021. The Biden administration has rolled out a sweeping set of sanctions on Russia over its election interference, hacking efforts and other malign activity. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, file photo, businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, gestures on the sidelines of a summit meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Konstantin palace outside St. Petersburg, Russia. Also on the list was the Kremlin's first deputy chief of staff, Alexei Gromov, several individuals linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to Russia's president, nicknamed "Putin's chef" for serving Kremlin functions, and a number of front companies that U.S. Treasury says help Prigozhin evade sanctions imposed earlier. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, file photo, businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, gestures on the sidelines of a summit meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Konstantin palace outside St. Petersburg, Russia. Also on the list was the Kremlin's first deputy chief of staff, Alexei Gromov, several individuals linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to Russia's president, nicknamed "Putin's chef" for serving Kremlin functions, and a number of front companies that U.S. Treasury says help Prigozhin evade sanctions imposed earlier. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
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