The Biden administration has announced the US 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 cyber hacking of federal agencies.
The sweeping measures are meant to punish Russia for actions that US 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.
Foreshadowed for weeks by administration officials, the actions are certain to exacerbate tensions with Moscow, which promised retaliation.
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.
The US on Thursday also explicitly linked the hack to a Russian intelligence agency called the SVR. Though such intelligence-gathering operations 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 US also announced sanctions on 32 individuals and entities accused of attempting to interfere in last year’s presidential election, including by spreading disinformation.
US intelligence officials alleged in a declassified report last month that Russian President Vladimir Putin authorised influence operations to help Donald Trump in his unsuccessful bid for reelection as president, though there is no evidence Russia or anyone else changed votes or manipulated the outcome.
The actions signal a harder line against Mr Putin, whom Mr Trump was reluctant to criticise 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.
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.
We will act firmly in response to Russian actions that cause harm to us or our allies and partnersUS Secretary of State Antony Blinken
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.
“These actions are intended to hold Russia to account for its reckless actions. We will act firmly in response to Russian actions that cause harm to us or our allies and partners,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
But, he added, “Where possible, the United States will also seek opportunities for cooperation with Russia, with the goal of building a more stable and predictable relationship consistent with US interests.”
The White House also said Mr Biden was using diplomatic, military and intelligence channels to respond to reports that Russia encouraged the Taliban to attack US and allied troops in Afghanistan, based on the “best assessments” of the intelligence community.
Reports of alleged “bounties” surfaced last year, with the Trump administration coming under fire for not raising the issue directly with Russia.
The White House did not publicly confirm those reports. “The safety and wellbeing of US military personnel, and that of our allies and partners, is an absolute priority of the United States,” the White House said on Thursday.
Among the individual companies sanctioned were websites that US 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.
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 US Treasury says help Mr Prigozhin evade sanctions imposed earlier.
After the sanctions were announced, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that “such aggressive behaviour will undoubtedly trigger a resolute retaliation”.
“Washington should realise that it will have to pay a price for the degradation of the bilateral ties,” Ms Zakharova said, adding that “the responsibility for that will fully lie with the United States”.
She said the ministry has summoned the US ambassador for a “hard conversation”, but would not immediately say what action Russia will take.
President Biden informed Mr Putin that the sanctions were coming earlier this week.
Biden administration officials have made clear in their contacts with the Russia side that they are hoping to avoid a “downward spiral” in the relationship, according to a senior administration official.
The two leaders had a second tense call this week in which Mr Biden told Mr Putin to “de-escalate tensions” following a Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s border, and said the US would “act firmly in defence of its national interests” regarding Russian intrusions and election interference.