U.S. Sanctions Russia Over Election Interference, Energy Attacks

‘Russia’s behavior or lack thereof on the world stage is continuing to trouble us’

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump at a G-20 summit in Germany. (Wikimedia Commons)
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump at a G-20 summit in Germany. (Wikimedia Commons)
Posted March 15, 2018 at 11:53am

The Trump administration announced Thursday sanctions slapped on two dozen Russian individuals and entities — including its top two security and intelligence agencies — it says were involved in meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and an ongoing attack on the American energy sector.

Senior administration officials said the penalties on five Russian entities and 19 individuals are intended to punish Russia for “malicious cyber activity” and the “reckless and irresponsible conduct of its government,” a rare public rebuke of the Vladimir Putin-led Kremlin by the Trump administration. Those actions include a U.S.-backed finding by the U.K. government that Moscow is linked to the poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.

“We are very focused on countering Russian aggression,” a senior administration official said amid allegations from Democrats and other critics that President Donald Trump has done too little to respond to a foreign government interfering in an American election. For his part, Putin continued to deny the allegations and recently told an American television interviewer he does not care about the matter.

“Russia’s behavior or lack thereof on the world stage is continuing to trouble us,” a second senior administration official said. “By no means will this constitute the end of our ongoing campaign to convince Mr. Putin to change his behavior.”

The energy sector attack was a cyber attack, and senior officials said Russian intrusions into energy systems “have been removed.” They did not describe the scope of that alleged attack, saying only the government and private entities have concluded critical systems were unaffected.

Among the sanctions are ones that target the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, or FSB, the top security agency and successor to the Cold War-era KGB. The penalties also apply to Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, or GBU, and another government intelligence service U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have concluded was involved in meddling in the 2016 election via cyber activities. The penalties target six GBU-linked individuals.

U.S.-based assets of that intelligence service and others sanctioned Thursday are blocked and American firms and individuals are banned from conducting transactions with those penalized.

The Russians used servers in the United States to establish hundreds of accounts on social media networks such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and posed as politically and socially active Americans, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said. They pretended to be grass-roots activists and recruited and paid real Americans to engage in political activities, promote political campaigns and stage political rallies.

Details of that campaign were laid out in an indictment document of involved Russian individuals and entities last month from the Justice Department’s special counsel, Robert Mueller. That indictment, among other Russian firms and individuals, fingered the Internet Research Agency among others.

Sixteen of the 24 entities or individuals sanctioned on Thursday were subject to that special counsel indictment.

To disguise their actions, IRA agents bought American computer servers and established virtual private networks that allowed their bosses back in Russia to connect to U.S. networks using such VPN access, according to the indictment. The sanctions target a dozen people who worked for the IRA.

Democratic lawmakers and some nationals security experts have slammed Trump over his reluctance to agree with all U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the American election. Trump has since done so — though he again said other countries or individuals also might have been involved. The president did say Tuesday he agrees with the British government that Russia is linked to the attempted murder of the former spy and his daughter in Salisbury.

House Intelligence ranking member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has knocked the president’s response to the election interference, saying Trump has done little more than “sit on his hands.”

“It is inexplicable that the president of the United States continues to sit on sanctions that Congress passed, that Congress wants enforced against Russia over this interference,” Schiff told CNN in February.

Senate Intelligence ranking member Mark Warner, D-Va., earlier this month said of Trump’s response: “Unfortunately, what we have not seen is a whole-of-government response.” Warner also warned Russia has never ceased its attempts to further destabilize the American political system: “We’ve seen Russian bots and activities stirring up people on both sides of the gun debate after the shootings in Florida.”

One of the senior administration officials batted away a question on whether the Trump team has done enough to punish Russia, noting it already slapped other sanctions on 100 Russian individuals and entities.

“I just want to make it clear,” that official said, “that this is just one of a series of ongoing actions we are taking.”