Biden announces Russia sanctions, says U.S. not looking for ‘cycle of escalation’
President Biden sought to reshape Washington’s relationship with Moscow on Thursday, saying he remains dedicated to future cooperation, hours after his administration announced sanctions on Russian companies and individuals in retaliation for meddling in U.S. politics and hacking its computer networks.
As part of the broadside, the U.S. for the first time formally blamed Russian intelligence for last year’s SolarWinds cyberattack, which targeted federal agencies and private companies. It also expelled 10 Russian holders of diplomatic passports whom it accused of intelligence activity.
“My bottom line is this,” Biden said at the White House. “When there’s an interest in the United States to work with Russia, we should and we will. When Russia seeks to violate the interests of the United States, we will respond.”
The president’s remarks were noteworthy for the respect he showed Moscow, referring to the U.S. and Russia as “two great powers with significant responsibility for global stability.” And he insisted that Washington is “not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia.”
The sanctions won rare bipartisan support in Washington, but it remained unclear what impact they would have on a Kremlin that has remained for the most part impervious to outside pressure.
Two days earlier, Biden spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone and cautioned that the U.S. 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 Europe.
Biden said that “our teams are discussing that possibility right now” even though Moscow responded harshly to his administration’s announcement.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the sanctions are illegal, would invite “reciprocal” actions and were not conducive to a meeting of the two presidents. He also suggested Putin might withdraw his participation in next week’s climate conference hosted by the United States.
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, alleged it was part of an intelligence-gathering mission to amass U.S. secrets for the Russian government.
The officials also said Putin ordered cyber and disinformation campaigns to help former President Trump in his unsuccessful bid for reelection. Russian intelligence operatives spread conspiracy theories to undermine faith in the election process and then fanned a false narrative of widespread fraud, the Treasury Department said.
President Biden spoke with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whom he recently labeled a “killer,” and said the U.S. would act firmly to defend its interests.
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 United States will be frozen.
Among those named was Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian and Ukrainian political consultant known to have worked for Russian intelligence services. Thursday’s announcement added a new detail to the story of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, in which Trump won the electoral college vote.
According to the Biden administration, Kilimnik provided Russian intelligence with “sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy.” Kilimnik, an alleged Russian agent, is an associate of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016.
Although it was previously known from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation that Manafort provided campaign information to Kilimnik, U.S. officials had not said what they believe he did with it. Trump last year pardoned Manafort, who had been convicted of bank fraud, tax evasion and illegally lobbying for Ukraine and had resisted cooperating with Mueller’s investigators.
Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, apparently shared polling data during the 2016 presidential campaign with Konstantin Kilimnik, a business partner in Ukraine who allegedly has ties to Russian intelligence, according to a court filing released Tuesday.
The sanctions and expulsions “are intended to hold Russia to account for its reckless actions,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in a statement. “We will act firmly in response to Russian actions that cause harm to us or our allies and partners.”
Thursday’s actions 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. However, 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.
The limited confidence in the information, the official said, was because much of it came from detained militants in Afghanistan and could not be verified given the countrywide violence.
The omission was notable because Biden had accused Trump of a “betrayal” for refusing to confront Putin over the bounties during last year’s campaign. Asked if Biden regretted the political attack, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said “we still feel like there are questions to be answered by the Russian government.”
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 do not seek a downward spiral,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
Yet a downward spiral seemed likely. Past sanctions 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, was 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.”
Imposing sanctions on Moscow is a frequent punishment that has done little to rein in Putin, experts say. It remained unclear whether the Biden batch will have more impact.
He now says he was being sarcastic, but President Trump’s expression of gratitude to Russian President Vladimir Putin for cutting hundreds of U.S. diplomatic personnel was no laughing matter for many U.S. foreign service officers.
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 in March 2018 and the closure of several Russian consular offices six months earlier — among them the historic consulate in San Francisco. Much of that punishment was meted out despite Trump’s opposition, according to former administration officials.
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.
Targeting Russia’s sovereign debt has a “broader chilling effect” by raising borrowing costs and stunting growth, a senior administration official said. “This is the main market that finances the Russian government.”
Democrats applauded Biden’s steps while Republicans gave muted approval.
“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 both the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who as chair of the House Intelligence Committee oversaw much of the inquiry into Russian cyberspying, praised Biden’s actions but said sanctions alone “will not be enough to deter Russia’s misbehavior,” adding the U.S. government had to take urgent steps to strengthen its cyberdefenses.
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, welcomed the sanctions but added 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 opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Around the same time, Biden was asked in a television interview whether he thought Putin was a killer.
“I do,” Biden replied.
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