U.S. Slaps New Sanctions On Russia Over Cyberattack, Election Meddling

Apr 15, 2021
Originally published on April 15, 2021 5:40 pm

Updated April 15, 2021 at 5:40 PM ET

President Biden is ordering a new round of economic sanctions on Russia — a response in part to Moscow's election meddling and a Kremlin-linked computer breach that penetrated numerous U.S. government networks.

Biden said Thursday that the United States isn't pushing for "a cycle of escalation and conflict" with Russia, but instead for both nations to manage tensions and work together when needed.

But the president also said that during a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he made it clear that any actions taken against the United States would be met with proportionate repercussions.

"My bottom line is this, where it is in the interest of the United States to work with Russia, we should and we will. If Russia seeks to violate the interests of the United States, we will respond," Biden said. "We will always stand in defense of our country, our institutions, our people and our allies."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday afternoon that "our objective here is not to escalate, our objective is to impose costs for what we feel are unacceptable actions by the Russian government."

The sanctions are also meant to impose a penalty over Russia's continued occupation of Crimea, which it infiltrated and annexed from Ukraine seven years ago, and for reportedly offering bounties for attacks against U.S. and coalition military personnel in Afghanistan.

Psaki said that while the U.S. believes with "low to moderate confidence" that bounties were offered by Russia, "we had enough concern about these reports that we wanted to have our intelligence community look into them."

"We still feel there are questions to be answered by the Russian government," she added.

She said the sanctions signal that "we are going to be clear to Russia that there will be consequences when warranted."

On the possibility of a Biden-Putin summit at some point in the future, Psaki said that "the invitation remains open."

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in U.S. elections or on offering the bounties. Moscow has also said it had nothing to do with the SolarWinds computer attack.

Speaking after the measures were made official, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the "aggressive behavior" would lead to an "inevitable" response and that the U.S. would "pay" for the deterioration in relations.

"The United States is not ready to come to terms with the objective reality that there is a multipolar world that excludes American hegemony," Zakharova said.

In December, reports emerged that U.S. technology firm SolarWinds had been hit by a cyberattack that went undetected for months as the company sent out software updates with the hackers' code to its clients worldwide. The attack — first identified by cybersecurity firm FireEye when its own systems were found to have been compromised — later allowed hackers to infiltrate U.S. government networks, including those used by the Homeland Security and Treasury departments.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan, speaking with CNN on Thursday, said that the White House believes the sanctions "are proportionate measures to defend American interests in response to harmful Russia actions, including cyber intrusions and election interference."

A fact sheet released by the White House on Thursday morning said, "The Biden administration has been clear that the United States desires a relationship with Russia that is stable and predictable."

"We do not think that we need to continue on a negative trajectory," it said. "However, we have also been clear — publicly and privately —that we will defend our national interests and impose costs for Russian Government actions that seek to harm us."

According to the White House, the latest sanctions target more than 30 Russian entities and individuals it said are involved in election meddling. The U.S. is expelling 10 personnel from the Russian diplomatic mission from the country. The sanctions target six Russian tech firms believed to provide support to Russian intelligence.

The sanctions also include a prohibition on U.S. financial institutions participating in the trade of bonds used by the Russian government after June 14. They leave open the possibility "to expand sovereign debt sanctions on Russia as appropriate."

On CNN, Sullivan said that in a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week, Biden made clear that "his goal is provide a significant and credible response, but not to escalate the situation."

"We believe that altogether, both the actions we are taking today and that broader diplomacy, can produce a better set of outcomes for U.S.-Russia relations," Sullivan said.

Senior administration officials, speaking to reporters on background, said the U.S. has "no desire to be in an escalatory cycle with Russia" and that the sanctions are intended to be "proportionate and tailored" to the Kremlin's past actions.

While the latest sanctions are meant as a response to Russia's meddling in the 2020 presidential election, they follow on from Obama-era sanctions that called out the Kremlin for similar interference in the 2016 presidential race.

Former President Donald Trump repeatedly downplayed or denied any Russian involvement in the 2016 election, calling the accusation a "witch hunt" and a "hoax."

A U.S. intelligence report released last month confirmed that Russia sought once again to aid Trump in last year's election.

NPR's Lucian Kim contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States is imposing new sanctions against Russia. These are the first new sanctions against Russia during the Biden administration. The U.S. says it will block American investors from buying Russian bonds and expel some Russian personnel from this country, among other steps. These are responses to a massive cyberattack that the administration now formally blames Russia for. NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow is on the line. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why now?

DETROW: Well, it's hard to - where to start when it comes to various tension points with Russia right now. This is a response to several different aggressive acts - the SolarWinds hack, that major intrusion of government and corporate computer networks. The White House now says U.S. intelligence has high confidence that Russian intelligence was responsible for that. And that's more definitive than what the Trump administration was saying in early January. There is, of course, Russian attempts to interfere in the elections. There is an ongoing substantial buildup of Russian troops along the Ukraine border, something that's really alarming Western Europe and the U.S.

And this was interesting today. There have been those reports, remember, from last year that Russia placed bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. This morning, White House officials said U.S. intelligence had low to moderate confidence in that, as opposed to that high confidence about SolarWinds. And they made it clear that's not part of the reasoning for today's sanctions.

INSKEEP: So SolarWinds is the biggest single reason, but they're also thinking about elections and it seems generally thinking about issues that the previous president downplayed because he was being so deferential to Russia.

DETROW: That's right. Biden had made it clear throughout the campaign, the transition, early on that he was going to treat Russia differently and be tougher. That being said, there's a lot of sanctions skepticism out there. Major sanctions were put in place after Russia invaded and occupied Crimea in 2014. They're still there.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

DETROW: Of course, you know, as you mentioned, for four years, the Trump administration took a much less confrontational tone with Russia. President Trump was often dismissing U.S. intelligence assessments of Russian aggression. And expecting this criticism that are sanctions enough if you're saying you're going to be much tougher, the Biden administration was arguing this morning that these moves do have teeth, particularly this step barring Americans from investing in the Russian bond market.

One official told reporters they see a move like that having a chilling effect on the Russian economy and driving up interest rates, among other things. And the goal is to send a signal that cyberattacks will lead to retaliation, even though at the same time the administration is saying, look, we want to have a good relationship with Russia. We don't want to create a cycle of escalation here.

INSKEEP: Well, if they're sending this signal, how does that mesh with the other signal they're sending by President Biden calling up Vladimir Putin and saying, I'd love to have a meeting?

DETROW: Yeah. You really wonder what specifically they talked about and whether Biden hinted that these sanctions were coming. They spoke earlier this week. It was their second phone call. Biden has had this tougher line. Remember, recently he called Vladimir Putin a killer in an interview with ABC News.

But he did say that - and I should mention he did extend a nuclear treaty with Russia very early on in the administration. And he and Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, are saying they want to have a good relationship. They think it's important to have this face-to-face meeting at some point in the next few months. But the early response today from the Kremlin is that they view these sanctions as an escalation, not the proportional response the administration is framing it as. And they're saying these steps make a summit a lot less likely.

INSKEEP: Scott, pleasure talking with you, as always. Thanks.

DETROW: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.