The Biden administration yesterday announced a set of measures aimed at holding Russia accountable for the SolarWinds attacks against US federal agencies and private businesses. The US has imposed sanctions against Russian companies and has expelled Russian diplomats. Furthermore, the US has imposed economic sanctions that target Russia’s ability to borrow money.
The US announced economic sanctions and other measures against Russia in retaliation to the massive SolarWinds cyberattack and other “malign” actions. The SolarWinds breach has commonly been attributed to a Russian cybercriminal group with ties to the SVR, a Russian intelligence agency. In the cyberattack, Russian hackers accessed the networks of at least 9 US federal agencies, including the Treasury. And the departments of Justice and Homeland Security. Also breached were some of the largest businesses in the US, including some major technology companies.
US officials believe the attacks on federal agencies were a Russian intelligence gathering operation aimed at mining government secrets. Although such missions are not unusual, the Biden administration was determined to respond in this instance due to the operation’s wide scope and its high cost on US private companies.
“We could have gone further, but I chose not to do so,” said US President, Joe Biden. He also stated that he was not looking at exacerbating tensions with Russia. “We want a stable, predictable relationship” with Russia said President Biden. However, if Russia continues to interfere, he stated that he would be “prepared to take further actions to respond”.
The Sanctions Imposed
The sanctions signal a harder line from President Biden against Russia than had been taken by Trump. The sanctions are also the latest in a series of actions taken by successive presidential administrations aimed at countering Russian cyberattacks.
The US’s retaliatory measures include sanctions against 6 Russian companies that are believed to support Russia’s cyber activities. Among those sanctioned, are companies running websites that US officials say operate as fronts for Russian intelligence agencies. These companies are also alleged to have spread disinformation, claiming widespread voter fraud during the US 2020 presidential elections.
The sanctions also target Russia’s ability to borrow money. They prohibit US financial institutions from buying Russian bonds directly from the Russian Central Bank. Or from the Russian National Wealth Fund and the Finance Ministry.
Furthermore, the Biden administration has expelled 10 Russian diplomats, which includes representatives from Russian intelligence services. However, both Trump and Barack Obama had tried this tactic, with little effect towards ending Russian hacking.
Likely Effect of US Measures
Experts suggest that the latest sanctions may be more effective in curbing Russian cyberattacks because of their financial impact. The economic sanctions not only make it difficult for Russia to raise capital. They also provide foreign companies doubt about doing business in Russia.
Nonetheless, most experts agree that the sanctions are unlikely to make President Putin take “a 180-degree pivot in his behavior.” Andrew Weiss, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank analyst, also doubts that the sanctions would change much. “I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the new sanctions will shift Russia’s risk calculus in a fundamental fashion,” he said. “It’s to be expected that the Russians will keep probing and testing our resolve,” he added.
Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said “The issue is, how can we push back against Putin’s aggression, while at the same time keeping open channels of communication and continuing to cooperate with Russia in areas of mutual interest.”
Russian officials quickly denounced the sanctions and warned retaliations would soon be forthcoming.
Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman warned that “such aggressive behavior will undoubtedly trigger a resolute retaliation. Washington should realize that it will have to pay a price for the degradation of the bilateral ties.” Adding that “the responsibility for that will fully lie with the United States.”
Zakharova also stated that the ministry had summoned the US ambassador in Moscow for a meeting. “It’s not going to be a pleasant meeting for him,” she said. However, Zakharova didn’t mention what actions Russia was likely to take.
Other Countries Response to the US Announcement
In Brussels, the NATO defense alliance issued a statement of support. “NATO Allies support and stand in solidarity with the United States, following its 15 April announcement of actions to respond to Russia’s destabilizing activities,” said the statement. “Allies are taking actions individually and collectively to enhance the alliance’s collective security.”
The European Union also expressed solidarity, saying the hacking had also compromised EU interests. EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, said “The compromise affected governments and businesses worldwide, including in EU members.”
Furthermore, in a show of solidarity with the US, Poland declared three Russian diplomats working in Warsaw as personae non-gratae.