US slaps sanctions on Russia for hackings, expels 35 diplomats
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration struck back at Russia on Thursday for its efforts to influence the 2016 election, ejecting 35 Russian intelligence operatives from the United States and imposing sanctions on Russia’s two leading intelligence services.
The administration also sanctioned four top officers of one of those services, the military intelligence unit known as the GRU, which the White House believes ordered the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations.
The expulsion of the 35 diplomats was in response to the harassment of U.S. diplomats in Russia, officials said. None of those officials are believed to be connected to the hacking, they said. In addition, the State Department announced the closing of two “recreational facilities” — one in New York, another in Maryland — that it said were used for Russian intelligence activities, although officials would not say whether they were used in the election-related hacks.
In a sweeping set of announcements, the United States also released samples of malware and other indicators of Russian cyberactivity, including network addresses of computers commonly used by the Russians to launch attacks. Taken together, the actions amount to the strongest U.S. response ever taken against a state-sponsored cyberattack aimed at the United States.
The sanctions were in part intended to box in President-elect Donald Trump. Trump has consistently cast doubt that the Russian government had anything to do with the hacking of the DNC or other political institutions, saying U.S. intelligence agencies could not be trusted and suggesting that the hacking could have been the work of a “400-pound guy” sitting in his bed.
Trump will now have to decide whether to lift the sanctions on the Russian intelligence agencies when he takes office next month, with Republicans in Congress among those calling for a public investigation into Russia’s actions. Should Trump do so, it would require him to effectively reject the findings of his intelligence agencies.
Trump said Thursday night that he’ll meet next week with U.S. intelligence officials to discuss their findings that Russia hacked Democratic Party emails to meddle in the 2016 election, signaling a possible shift from his previous dismissals of Russian involvement.
In his first statement following Obama’s action, Trump said “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things. Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”
President Barack Obama, in a statement, put in a subtle dig at Trump’s unwillingness to talk about Russia’s role. “All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions,” he said. He said he acted after “repeated private and public warnings that we have issued to the Russian government” and called the moves “a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests in violation of established international norms of behavior.”
In Moscow, there was a sense that the Obama administration was trying to take unseemly last-minute revenge against Russia and President Vladimir Putin.
“We regret that this decision was made by the U.S. administration and President Obama personally,” Dmitri Peskov, spokesman for Putin, told reporters. “As we have said before, we believe such decisions and such sanctions are ungrounded and illegal from the point of view of international law.”
Russia is studying the details of what Washington did, he said, and some manner of reciprocal answer can be expected.
Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, told Interfax that “this is the agony not even of ‘lame ducks,’ but of ‘political corpses.”’
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said “there must be consequences for Russia’s interference with our election. Today’s action sends a clear message that the United States will not tolerate threats to our democracy and we will protect the American people and our institutions from being undermined by the Russian government.”
Congressional Republicans also backed Obama’s decision, even though they said the president should have acted sooner.
“Over and over again, Russia has made clear of its intention to wreak havoc around the world,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township. “Now the Obama administration is finally responding forcefully to this aggression.”
“But what took so long?” Tiberi asked. “Going forward, we must continue to send the signal that we will not tolerate foreign hacking on our nation. I continue to support the appropriate bipartisan committee investigations into Russia’s cyberattacks.”
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, said the “action is positive but long overdue. In 2014, President Obama warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that ‘there would be costs’ if Russia invaded Ukraine. Shortly after that statement, Vladimir Putin thumbed his nose at President Obama and the world watched as the Russians invaded Ukraine.”
Other Democrats were quick to praise Obama. “Actions have consequences, and today’s announcement by the Obama administration makes that abundantly clear to the Russian government,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Jefferson Township.
Despite the fanfare and political repercussions surrounding the announcement, it is not clear how much real effect the sanctions may have, although they go well beyond the modest sanctions imposed against North Korea for its attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment two years ago.
Starting in March 2014, the United States and its Western allies levied sanctions against broad sectors of the Russian economy and blacklisted dozens of people, some of them close friends of Putin, after the Russian annexation of Crimea and its activities to destabilize Ukraine. Trump suggested in an interview this year that he believed those sanctions were useless, and left open the possibility he might lift them.
This article first appeared on The Columbus Dispatch's website on December 30, 2016.