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White House Penalizes Russians Over Election Meddling and Cyberattacks
The Trump administration imposed sanctions on a series of Russian organizations and individuals on Thursday in retaliation for interference in the 2016 presidential election and other "malicious cyberattacks," its most significant action against Moscow since President Trump took office.
The sanctions came as the United States joined with Britain, France and Germany in denouncing Russia for its apparent role in a nerve-gas attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil, calling it a "clear violation" of international law. But the joint statement said nothing about any collective action in response.
In his first comment on the poison attack, Mr. Trump agreed that, despite its denials, Russia was likely behind it. "It looks like it," he told reporters in the Oval Office, adding that he had spoken with Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain.
"We are in deep discussions," Mr. Trump continued. "A very sad situation. 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."
In keeping with his reluctance to blame Moscow for meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Trump did not mention the sanctions or election interference. The president has repeatedly dismissed the suggestion that Russia sought to influence the vote in his favor as a "hoax" and "fake news," even as a special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has concluded otherwise and is investigating whether Mr. Trump's campaign collaborated with Russian agents.
Before leaving office, President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats, seized a pair of diplomatic properties and imposed sanctions in response to the election interference. But while Mr. Trump's administration has issued sanctions against some Russians for human rights abuses or for the country's intervention in Ukraine, the measures announced on Thursday represented the first time he took action on the meddling, and only after Congress passed legislation to force his hand.
The sanctions targeted the same three Russian organizations and 13 individuals indicted by Mr. Mueller for an audacious operation spreading disinformation and propaganda to disrupt American democracy and, eventually, promote Mr. Trump. The sanctions also targeted two other organizations and six individuals in response to various cyberattacks dating to March 2016, including a previously unconfirmed attempt to penetrate the American energy grid.
"The administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyberactivity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyberattacks and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. "These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia."
Moscow dismissed the move as political. "This is purely tied to the internal American infighting," Sergei Ryabkov, a deputy foreign minister, told the Interfax news agency. "This is also tied to our elections calendar."
President Vladimir V. Putin is virtually guaranteed of winning re-election on Sunday, but state-run media outlets tirelessly speculate that Western governments are creating provocations to make his victory and future rule less secure. "The Americans don't have any grounds to impose sanctions," Mr. Ryabkov said. "When talking about some 'intrusion,' the authors of these decisions should better talk about their own madness."
Among those targeted for election meddling was the Internet Research Agency, a troll factory that Mr. Mueller accused of creating fake online personas, infiltrating social media, posting thousands of ads and even organizing political rallies to shape the 2016 contest.
Nine of the 24 entities and individuals targeted on Thursday had already received sanctions from Mr. Obama or Mr. Trump for other reasons, including Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, an oligarch known as "Putin's cook" who was accused of controlling the Internet Research Agency. Also hit with sanctions again were the Federal Security Service and its military intelligence counterpart.
The measures were an important statement by an administration that has avoided taking action on election interference, but the tangible impact of freezing assets and barring business transactions may be minimal. Mr. Prigozhin brushed it off, noting that sanctions had already been imposed against him. "I have no business either in the U.S. or with Americans," he told Ria Novosti, a state news agency. "I don't care about this. Except perhaps that I won't be dining at McDonald's."
In addition to the election meddling, the Treasury Department said it was retaliating for the NotPetya cyberattack that caused billions of dollars in damage in the United States, Europe and Asia last year in what the department called "the most destructive and costly cyberattack in history."
The administration also took the unusual step of naming the Russian government as the force behind a series of intrusions into American power plants and the computer networks that control power grids. The attacks, known as "Dragonfly," pierced many layers of security and would have allowed the intruders to sabotage systems, experts say. But there is no evidence any sabotage took place.
Those attacks have been known to the American government for more than a year, but kept highly classified. Symantec Corporation, which markets systems that detect and combat malware, issued a report about Dragonfly in October, but stopped short of naming the Russians.
Among the targets was the Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corporation, which runs a nuclear power plant near Burlington, Kan., according to security responders and a joint report issued by the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. last June.
Those attacks suggest Russian state-sponsored hackers have been mapping out Western industrial, power and nuclear facilities, perhaps in preparation for eventual sabotage. There is no evidence that Russian hackers were able to jump from the operator's corporate networks into the production networks that control plant operations, but forensic investigators and government officials believe the attacks were designed to look for ways to make that jump.
The joint statement responding to the March 4 poisoning attack in Salisbury, England, came a day after Mrs. May expelled 23 Russian diplomats and announced other measures in retaliation. Sergei V. Skripal, the former Russian spy, and his daughter, Yulia, were left in a coma because of the attack, which British investigators attributed to Novichok, a potent nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and '80s.
"This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War," the statement by the four allies said. "It is an assault on the United Kingdom's sovereignty and any such use by a state party is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a breach of international law. It threatens the security of us all."
Although it did not include concrete steps in response, the joint statement was a notable display of unanimity among countries that have taken varying stances toward Russia in recent months. Mrs. May has sought in recent days to marshal criticism of Russia, submitting statements to international organizations like the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Russia has denied responsibility for the attack. "Neither Russia nor the Soviet Union has ever pursued any programs to develop chemical warfare agent called Novichok," Mr. Ryabkov said. "The allegations that such a program existed have been spread by people who were earlier transferred to the West and who actually emigrated not without Western governments' assistance."
He added that "all stockpiles of toxic substances were destroyed last year."
The poison attack increased pressure on Mr. Trump to take a more vocal public position regarding Russia, something he has steadfastly avoided. Lawmakers of both parties have been angry that, until Thursday, he had not imposed the sanctions envisioned in the law they passed nearly unanimously over his objections last year.
Democrats said the sanctions made it harder for Mr. Trump to dismiss Mr. Mueller's investigation as an illegitimate political exercise.
"The fact that the administration has issued sanctions against individuals and entities indicted by Special Counsel Mueller proves that his investigation is not a 'witch hunt' as the president and his allies have claimed," Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader, said in a statement.
Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who helped broker the sanctions law last year, said he was satisfied with Thursday's announcement but skeptical that new punishments would ultimately change Russia's behavior.
"I think Russia is on course to do what Russia is going to do," Mr. Corker said in an interview. "I think it's good that we're doing it, and I think we ought to continue to push back, but I think they are going to continue to attempt to create the kind of disharmony that they have been good at doing."
Still, there was a bipartisan consensus that Mr. Trump still had not done enough.
Representative Ed Royce, Republican of California and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the sanctions an "important step" but said that "more must be done." Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, called them "the bare minimum" that seemed "designed more for domestic public relations purposes than for actually deterring Russian misbehavior."
[Source: By Peter Baker, The New York Times, Washington, 15Mar18]
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