The Biden administration on Thursday announced the expulsion of ten Russian diplomats and sanctions against nearly three dozen people and companies as it moved to hold the Kremlin responsible for interfering in last year’s presidential election and hacking of federal agencies.
The measures, which the administrations predicted for several weeks, represent the first retaliatory measures announced against the Kremlin for the hack, known as the SolarWinds intrusion. In the intrusion, Russian hackers are believed to have infected software that is widely used with malware, allowing them to access at least nine agencies’ networks in what US officials believe was an intelligence-gathering operation aimed at breaking government secrets.
In addition to this hack, US officials claimed last month that Russian President Vladimir Putin approved of influence operations to help Donald Trump in his failed bid for re-election as president, although there is no evidence that Russia or anyone else changed votes or manipulated the result.
The measures announced on Thursday include sanctions against six Russian companies supporting the country’s cyber activities, in addition to sanctions against 32 individuals and entities accused of trying to interfere in last year’s presidential election, including by spreading misinformation.
The ten diplomats who are deported include representatives of Russian intelligence services, the White House said.
The White House also said Biden used diplomatic, military and intelligence services 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 service.
Reports of alleged “bounties” surfaced last year, with the Trump administration coming under fire for not addressing the issue directly with Russia. The White House did not publicly confirm the reports. “Security and well-being for US military personnel, and for our allies and partners, is an absolute priority for the United States,” the White House said on Thursday.
It was not immediately clear what, if any, other measures could be planned against Russia. Officials had previously said they expected to take action both seen and unseen.
The sanctions, which are probably intended to send a clear message to Russia and to deter similar actions in the future, will certainly exacerbate an already tense relationship between the United States and Russia.
President Joe Biden told Putin this week in his second call to “step down tensions” following a Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s border, saying the United States would “act decisively to defend its national interests” over Russian intrusion and electoral disruption.
In a television interview last month, Biden replied “I do” when asked if he thought Putin was a “killer.” He said US days “rolled over” to Putin were over. Putin later recalled his ambassador to the United States, pointing to the American history of slavery and the massacre of Indians and the atomic bombing of Japan during World War II.
It remained unclear whether the US measures would actually lead to a change in behavior, especially since previous US measures have failed to put an end to Russian hacking. The Obama administration expelled US diplomats in 2016 in response to this year’s presidential election. And although Trump was often reluctant to criticize Putin, his administration also expelled diplomats in 2018 for Russia’s alleged poisoning of a former intelligence officer in Britain.
U.S. officials are still struggling with the aftermath of the SolarWinds intrusion, which affected authorities including departments of finance, justice, energy and homeland security, and are still assessing what information may have been stolen. The crime exposed vulnerabilities in the supply chain as well as weaknesses in the federal government’s own cyber defense.
The measures would represent the second major round of sanctions imposed by the Biden administration on Russia. Last month, the United States sanctioned seven middle-class Russian officials, along with more than a dozen government entities, over an almost deadly nerve agent attack on opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his subsequent jail.