WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden expelled 10 Russian diplomats and sanctioned more than three dozen individuals and companies Thursday in retaliation for a massive cyberhacking of federal agencies and interference in the 2020 presidential election.
Biden’s second round of sanctions aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin are tougher and more sweeping than the last. Russia is accused of hacking the networks of at least nine federal agencies five months ago to gather U.S. secrets in the SolarWinds cyberbreach.
Russia also allegedly tried to influence the 2020 presidential election by waging disinformation campaigns to help the candidacy of Donald Trump, mirroring meddling efforts in the 2016 election.
For the first time, the Biden administration publicly identified the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, also known as APT 29, Cozy Bear and The Dukes, as the perpetrator of the SolarWinds attack, which the United States said gave Russia the ability to infect or potentially spy on 16,000 computer systems worldwide. Russia is accused of infecting software with malicious code to execute the broad-scope cyber espionage campaign.
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The Biden administration sanctioned six Russian technology companies that provide support to Russia’s cyberprogram in addition to 32 entities and individuals accused of carrying out Russian government-directed attempts to influence the election. The United States joined with the European Union and other allies to sanction eight other individuals and entities associated with Russia’s occupation in Crimea.
The 10 diplomats expelled from the Russian Embassy in Washington include representatives of intelligence services, the White House said.
Targeting Russia’s financial sector, the U.S. Treasury Department directed U.S. financial institutions to not participate in the primary market for ruble or non-ruble denominated bonds issued after June 14 by Russian banking institutions. The action gives the U.S. government authority to expand sovereign debt sanctions on Russia.
In brief remarks from the White House, Biden said he told Putin in a phone call Tuesday that “we could have gone further, but I chose not to do so. I chose to be proportionate.”
“The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable, predictable relationship. If Russia continues to interfere with our democracy, I’m prepared to take further actions to respond.”
Biden added that there are areas where the U.S. and Russia “can and should work together,” pointing to arms control and the recent five-year extension of the New START Treaty limiting nuclear arsenals of the two nations.
A senior Biden administration official, who spoke about the actions on the condition of anonymity, said other responses against Russia will “remain unseen” in the public eye.
The White House singled out reports that Russia encouraged Taliban attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan but said the new actions aren’t tied to the alleged bounties because of “low-to-moderate confidence” in the intelligence. The White House said the response to the alleged bounties are “being handled through diplomatic, military and intelligence channels.”
In March, the Biden administration sanctioned Russia over the poisoning and detention of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Additional sanctions against Russia had been telegraphed by the Biden administration for weeks.
Tuesday, in his second phone call with Putin as president, Biden previewed the actions, telling him that the United States “will act firmly in defense of its national interest” in response to cyber intrusion and election interference. He called for Putin to “de-escalate tensions” after Russia’s military buildup in Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders. Biden proposed a summit meeting in a third country this summer with Putin to discuss U.S.-Russian relations.
“Our teams are discussing that possibility right now,” Biden said. “And out of that summit – were it to occur and I believe it will – the United States and Russia could launch a strategic stability dialogue.”
The new actions are certain to further heighten tensions building between Putin and Biden after the Russian leader enjoyed a warmer relationship with Trump.
In a television interview last month, Biden said Putin would “pay a price” for Moscow’s interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Biden was asked whether he thought Putin is a killer. “I do,” the president responded. In response, Russia recalled its ambassador to the United States, and Putin pointed at the U.S. history of slavery and slaughtering Native Americans and the atomic bombing of Japan in World War II.
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“My bottom line is this,” Biden said. “When there is interest to work with Russia, we should and we will. And when Russia seeks to violate the interests of the United States, we will respond.”
Asked whether Putin gave any indication he will change his behavior, Biden said, “My hope and my expectation is we will be able to work out a modus vivendi.”
In response to the Navalny poisoning, the Biden administration sanctioned seven senior members of the Russian government last month. The United States added 14 entities to the Department of Commerce’s blacklist, mirroring sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United Kingdom over the attempted murder of Navalny. The sanctions prevent top figures allied with Putin from accessing financial and property assets in the USA.
Previous administrations’ actions have failed to change Moscow’s behavior, including Russian hacking. After Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the Obama administration expelled diplomats from the USA. Though Trump was often reluctant to criticize Putin, his administration expelled diplomats in 2018 for Russia’s alleged poisoning of an ex-intelligence officer in Britain.
“We can’t predict what the impact will be,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “But we still believe when there is unacceptable behavior, we should put consequences in place.”
U.S. officials are still grappling with the aftereffects of the SolarWinds intrusion, which affected agencies including the Treasury, Justice, Energy and Homeland Security Departments, and assessing what information may have been stolen. The breach exposed weaknesses in the federal government’s cyberdefenses.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.