US Unveils New Sanctions on Russia for Hacking

The measures put President-elect Donald Trump in an awkward position.

US Unveils New Sanctions on Russia for Hacking
Credit: Presidential Press and Information Service

On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama announced new sanctions against a handful of individuals and entities — including two Russian intelligence agencies, the FSB and GRU — in response to hacking linked to the recent presidential election.

In addition, the U.S. State Department declared 35 Russian diplomats “persona non grata” and stated its intention to close two “recreational compounds” owned by the Russian government in Maryland and New York. The U.S. Treasury Department is adding two more names to its list of those sanctioned for cyber-related activities.

The sanctions were anticipated. Earlier in December, Obama said in an interview, “I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections … we need to take action. And we will — at a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be.”

In a statement Thursday, Obama outlined the sanctions and couched them as following “repeated private and public warnings” to the Russian government as well as the administration’s previous efforts to publicize election-related Russian hacking.

Obama also cited persistent harassment of U.S. diplomats by Russian security services. Back in June, Josh Rogin reported for the Washington Post that “U.S. ambassadors to several European countries complained that Russian intelligence officials were constantly perpetrating acts of harassment against their diplomatic staff that ranged from the weird to the downright scary.”

Thursday, Obama said “All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions.”

On Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump was asked at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida about the expected new sanctions on Russia. He responded, “I think we ought to get on with our lives.”

He went on today: “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of the computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind of security we need.”

Trump will take office on January 20. Throughout his campaign (and since his victory) Trump was criticized for taking a soft, if not friendly, stance toward Russia and the expectation that once president, he will reorient U.S. policy toward Russia.

Once in office, Trump will have the authority to issue executive orders of his own overturning those of his predecessor. It’s unclear how quickly that may or may not happen.

The 35 diplomats — from the Russian Embassy in Washington and consulate in San Francisco — which the State Department have declared “persona non grata” reportedly have 72 hours to leave the country. The individuals have not been named, but Reuters reports that the Russian Ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, is not among them.

The State Department says the individuals “were acting in a manner inconsistent with their diplomatic or consular status.” In his statement, Obama referred to the 35 as “intelligence operatives.”

Obama’s announcement was also accompanied by the release of a Joint Analysis Report (JAR) — a product of cooperation between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigations — further substantiating the consensus within the intelligence community regarding Russian hacking.

Specifically, the report “expands upon the Joint Statement released October 7, 2016, from the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security.”  

The U.S. government has termed the “malicious cyber activity” of the Russian intelligence services “Grizzly Steppe.” RT, in a sardonic fashion, tweeted an article about the JAR accompanied by a GIF of a grizzly bear playing the guitar.

The JAR outlined the activities of two separate Russian espionage groups that targeted a “U.S. political party” with various spearphishing campaigns. The JAR ominously notes that “Actors likely associated with RIS [ Russian civilian and military intelligence Services] are continuing to engage in spearphishing campaigns, including one launched as recently as November 2016, just days after the U.S. election.”

Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova responded to the new sanctions by lambasting the “outgoing US administration” and calling the allegations that Russia orchestrated the election-related hacking “lies.”

“We can only add that if Washington takes new hostile steps, it will receive an answer,” she continues, saying that actions against Russian diplomats will be repaid in kind.

Obama, in his statement, said, “These actions are not the sum total of our response to Russia’s aggressive activities. We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized.”