May 17, 2021

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U.S. sanctions Russia for 2020 election interference, SolarWinds hack – NBC News

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The United States is hitting Russia with fresh sanctions for interference in the 2020 presidential election, a sweeping cyberattack against American government and corporate networks and other activities.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order Thursday morning to strengthen his administration’s response to Russia, the White House said. Under the order, the Treasury Department has blacklisted six Russian technology companies that provide support to the cyber program run by Russia’s intelligence services.

Treasury also sanctioned 32 entities and individuals for “carrying out Russian government-directed attempts to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and other acts of disinformation and interference,” as well as eight individuals and entities associated with Russia’s actions in Crimea.

The Biden administration is also expelling 10 personnel from the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., including members of Russian intelligence services.

As part of its actions, the administration is “responding to reports that Russia encouraged Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan,” which “is being handled through diplomatic, military, and intelligence channels” due to sensitivity of the matter and safety of forces, the White House said.

The U.S. also formally named Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service as the perpetrator of the SolarWinds cyberattack last year, a widespread breach that tore into U.S. government agencies and dozens of corporations.

The news of the sanctions was first reported by Bloomberg.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters outside the White House that Biden informed Russian President Vladimir Putin in their call earlier this week that the U.S. would be imposing the new sanctions.

Biden told Putin that he “made a determination” that Russia took the various harmful actions outlined Thursday and told him he would respond, but not escalate tensions, Sullivan said. Biden also told Putin that he wanted to find a stable and predictable way forward in their relationship and proposed a summit meeting this summer to that end.

Thursday’s sanctions come a month after Biden publicly promised retaliation against Putin for a range of malicious activities that Washington blames on Moscow.

Biden has characterized Putin as a “killer” and said he would “pay the price” for these actions. Russia denies all of these charges, saying the intelligence community’s documentation of its 2020 election interference consisted of “baseless accusations.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested Moscow would respond in kind to any “illegal” sanctions imposed by the U.S.

“We condemn any intentions to impose sanctions, consider them illegal, and in any case the principle of reciprocity operates in this area,” he said Thursday according to Reuters. Russia did not want relations with Washington to be a case of “one step forward and two steps back,” he added.

Last month a declassified intelligence document said that Putin authorized influence operations to denigrate Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign, support then-President Donald Trump and undermine faith in American democracy.

U.S. officials also blame Russian intelligence services for the SolarWinds cyberattack, which Microsoft President Brad Smith described as “the largest and most sophisticated attack the world has ever seen.”

In January, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration had asked intelligence services for a full assessment of the hack and the 2020 election interference, as well as Russia’s use of “chemical weapons against opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and the alleged bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.”

The Biden admin unveiled its first round of sanctions on Moscow for the poisoning and detention of Navalny early last month, in action coordinated with the European Union.

The sanctions expected Thursday come at a time of particular tension after Russia started amassing forces along the border with Ukraine. The Kremlin said the forces are there for a training mission, but few outside the country buy that, and the U.S. and its European allies have called on Russia to withdraw.

In a call with Putin on Tuesday, Biden proposed the two leaders meet at a summit to tackle issues including the situation around Ukraine.

Analysts say a Russian military offensive is not impossible, but many believe it’s more likely an attempt to intimidate Ukraine and a warning to the U.S. and its other Western backers not to get involved in an area it considers its backyard.

Kristen Welker, Andrea Mitchell and Abigail Williams reported from Washington, and Alex Smith reported from London.

Reuters contributed.

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