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US Expels Russian Diplomats, Sanctions 04/16 06:12

   

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

   The sweeping measures announced Thursday 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 interests 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 familiarly known as the SolarWinds breach, with the U.S. explicitly 
linking the intrusion to the SVR, a Russian intelligence agency. 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 presidential 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 Donald Trump in his unsuccessful bid for reelection as president, though 
there's no evidence Russia or anyone else changed votes.

   The 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. They are the 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 days earlier 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 I chose not to do so. I chose to be 
proportionate."

   "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."

   Other American 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.

   The sanctions announced Thursday are the latest in a series of actions that 
successive presidential administrations have taken to counter Russian behavior 
seen as antagonistic. It is unclear whether the new U.S. actions will result in 
changed behavior, especially since past measures by the U.S. -- both Trump and 
Barack Obama expelled individual 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 
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 now with the Foundation 
for Defense of Democracies, 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 separate 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 they had only low to moderate 
confidence in that intelligence, in part because of the ways in which the 
information was obtained, including from interrogations of Afghan detainees.

   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 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.

   The Treasury Department said on Thursday that Kilimnik had provided 
"sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy" to Russian 
intelligence services. That went further than Mueller's office, which said in 
its 2019 report that 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 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 several front companies the U.S. says helped Prigozhin 
evade sanctions imposed earlier.

   The U.S. also sanctioned eight individuals and entities tied to Russia's 
occupation in Crimea.

   Biden informed Putin that the sanctions were coming earlier this week. 
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 who briefed reporters on the 
condition of anonymity following the sanctions announcement.

   The two leaders had a tense call in which Biden told Putin to "de-escalate 
tensions" following a 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" to 
Putin were done. Putin later recalled his ambassador to the U.S. and pointed at 
the U.S. history of slavery and slaughtering Native Americans and the atomic 
bombing of Japan in World War II.

   U.S. officials are still grappling with the aftereffects of the SolarWinds 
intrusion, which affected agencies including the Treasury, Justice and Homeland 
Security departments. The breach exposed vulnerabilities in the supply chain as 
well as weaknesses in the federal government's own cyber defenses.

 
 
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