U.S. Imposes New Sanctions On Russia Over Election Interference, Cyberattacks

Mar 15, 2018
Originally published on March 16, 2018 8:11 am

Updated at 12:12 p.m. ET

The Trump administration imposed new sanctions against Russia on Thursday, slapping punitive measures on 19 people and five entities over their alleged role in Moscow's interference in the 2016 election and other "destructive" cyberattacks.

The sanctions mark the most significant move against Russia since President Trump took office more than a year ago. They arrived as Washington's closest ally, Britain, is locked in a diplomatic struggle with Moscow after accusing the Kremlin of using a nerve agent to poison a former Russian intelligence officer living in the United Kingdom.

Trump also joined the leaders of the U.K., France and Germany on Thursday in issuing a statement that condemned the poisoning attack.

Among the Russians sanctioned by the U.S. on Thursday are 13 people and three entities, including the Internet Research Agency, indicted by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller for their alleged role in Moscow's influence operation during the 2016 campaign.

Trump has repeatedly questioned whether Russia did indeed interfere in the election, despite the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that the Kremlin carried out a sweeping influence operation and propaganda campaign.

Lately, however, he has changed his tune and accepted that the active measures took place. Last week, he vowed to "counteract very strongly" any interference in this year's midterm races.

Two Russian intelligence agencies — the domestic-focused Federal Security Service, or FSB, and Russia's chief military intelligence organization, the GRU — also were hit with sanctions along with six senior GRU officials. Several of those individuals already faced U.S. sanctions.

Sanctions against the government agencies are mostly symbolic and are not expected to seriously constrain the campaign of active measures against the West.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, however, that the point is to continue pressuring and isolating Russia over its agitation against the West.

"The administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyberactivity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyberattacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure," Mnuchin said.

"These targeted sanctions are part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia."

Among the cyberattacks for which U.S. is trying to punish Russia was the "NotPetya" attack, which targeted computers in Ukraine. The U.S. attributes that attack to the Russian military.

Mnuchin said the administration plans to impose more sanctions in an effort "to hold Russian government officials and oligarchs accountable for their destabilizing activities by severing their access to the U.S. financial system."

Critics said the measures announced on Thursday were far too little, too late.

"It took 14 months, multiple indictments, and a poisoning in Britain — but the administration is finally imposing the sanctions overwhelmingly approved by Congress," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

"However, sanctions alone are insufficient. Now we must protect our democracy going forward by securing our election systems and increasing transparency and disclosure requirements for online political advertisements."

Administration officials say they're doing that. The Department of Homeland Security and FBI are working with state-level elections officials to familiarize them with the cyberthreats from abroad.

But the potential peril is broader than ever. National security officials told reporters on Thursday that cyberattackers also have focused on American critical infrastructure, including the electrical grid and key industrial facilities.

"The cyber actors are using a multistage attack campaign with staging and intended targets involved," one official said. "And the campaign is long term and still ongoing."

Foreign cyberattackers gain access to internal networks involved with running a power plant, for example. Then they map the way it works and burrow deeper.

"After obtaining access, these actors conducted network reconnaissance, moved laterally and collected information pertaining to industrial control systems, the systems that run our factories and our grid."

An attack that crippled an American electrical system or another major industrial target would probably be viewed as a major act of war and could trigger an equal response.

So it's not as likely as the lower-level interference that continues from Russia, but it remains part of the suite of weapons that nations could wield against one another in a crisis addition to their traditional military hardware.

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The Trump administration has announced new sanctions on Russia over its interference in the 2016 election and other cyberattacks. The sanctions target 19 Russians and five Russian entities. NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas joins us now with details. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Howdy.

MCCAMMON: So first off, who exactly is getting sanctioned here?

LUCAS: Well, as you said, there are 19 people and five entities in all. They break down basically into about two groups. The first and biggest batch is made up of 13 Russians and three businesses that are being hit with sanctions over their role interfering in the 2016 election. These individuals and entities are the same ones that were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller last month over what investigators say was their involvement in the disinformation campaign during the 2016 race here. One entity that may ring a bell is the Internet Research Agency. That's the troll farm in St. Petersburg, Russia, that ginned up a lot of the disinformation and propaganda and fake accounts that we saw to try to influence the presidential race.

MCCAMMON: OK, and what about the other Russians sanctioned today?

LUCAS: Right, so the other two entities are big Russian intelligence services - the federal security service known as the FSB. And then there's Russia's main military intelligence organization. That's the GRU. The other individuals facing new sanctions are six senior officials in the GRU. The U.S. says they are facing these sanctions over malicious cyber activities including but not limited to the election interference. So senior administration officials provided some details on those other attacks. One was called NotPetya, which the U.S. attributed to Russia. That attack caused billions of dollars of damage across the globe. And then there are other cyberattacks that continue against the United States.

MCCAMMON: And, Ryan, how significant of a move are these sanctions?

LUCAS: Well, these are certainly the most meaningful actions that we've seen to date from the Trump administration against Russia. But these aren't a game changer. They're largely symbolic. This isn't anything along the lines of what the U.S. and its allies did after Russia's intervention in Ukraine. These aren't going to squeeze the Russian economy. And that's really not their goal. This is much more narrow - aimed at punishing those involved in cyberattacks. These sanctions will bar these folks from traveling to the U.S. It will freeze their assets in the U.S. and bar American businesses and Americans from doing business with them.

So the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee - that's Mark Warner - says the sanctions are a good move, says they're a little late, and they don't go far enough. He also points out that a lot of the individuals sanctioned today were already sanctioned by the U.S. during the Obama administration. And that, of course, opens the door to criticism that this isn't serious action from the Trump administration against Russia. And, of course, the president has consistently questioned whether Moscow interfered at all during the 2016 campaign.

MCCAMMON: Right, and these sanctions come at yet another tense time between Russia and the West. Britain has blamed the poisoning of a former Russian spy living in the U.K. on Russia. Is the timing of the sanctions related to that?

LUCAS: Well, when they announced these sanctions today, U.S. officials mentioned the nerve agent attack in Britain that has left Sergei Skripal and his daughter both hospitalized. U.S. officials called it another example of Russia's reckless and irresponsible behavior. But these sanctions are not directly in response to that. That said, President Trump did address the nerve agent attack today. And here's what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it - something that should never, ever happen. And we're taking it very seriously, as I think are many others.

LUCAS: Now the U.S., along with France and Germany, joined the U.K. in blaming Russia for that nerve agent attack in Britain. They say it's the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II - so for a very long time. They say it was an assault on Britain's sovereignty. But what they don't say is what actions they're going to take, either on their own or together, in response to this.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.