The Trump administration on Thursday imposed fresh financial sanctions on Russian government hackers and spy agencies to punish Moscow for interfering in the 2016 presidential election, and for a cyberattack against Ukraine and other countries last year that officials have characterized as “the most destructive and costly” in history.
Sanctions also were imposed on individuals known as “trolls” and the Russian organizations that supported their efforts to undermine the election. Additionally, the administration alerted the public that Russia is targeting the U.S. energy grid with computer malware that could sabotage the systems.
These are not, however, the broad-based sanctions envisioned in the sanctions legislation passed by Congress nearly unanimously last year. Ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez (N.J.) called the move a “long overdue response” but noted in a written statement that “the previous Administration had already sanctioned many of these individuals and entities.” He cautioned, “Separate from today’s sanctions designations, the administration has not implemented six other mandatory provisions of the law. I strongly urge the immediate imposition of these mandatory sanctions under sections 225, 226, 228, 231, 233, and 234.”
The U.S. also joined in a statement with allies, The Post reports:
The United States and two major European allies on Thursday formally backed Britain’s claims that Russia likely was responsible for a chemical toxin attack against a former spy living in England, calling it the “first offensive use of a nerve agent” in Europe since World War II.
The joint statement from the leaders of France, Germany, the United States and Britain signaled a further ratcheting of international pressure on Russia that has been mounting since former double agent Sergei Srkipal and his daughter, Yulia, were found comatose on March 4.
We should acknowledge that this is better than what President Trump has done to date — which is nothing. “Today’s sanctions were predictable after the Mueller indictment, which identified specific Russians involved with the troll factory,” Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution tells me. “However, these individuals are small fish. [Yevgeny] Prigozhin, the so-called ‘Putin’s chef’ in charge of the IRA [Internet Research Agency], was already on the U.S. sanctions list for his activities in Ukraine. The administration deserves credit for following through on their promise to impose new sanctions, but much more still needs to be done to realistically deter Russia.” Moreover, if sanctions are justified for Russian meddling, then surely the Russia investigation is anything but a “hoax,” and any American who has cooperated in any fashion with Russia should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Max Bergmann, who heads the investigative Moscow Project at the Center for American Progress, agrees. “I think this is a useful first step. But let’s be clear; it is a pretty small first step,” he said. “These sanctions are focused on the Internet Research Agency and the GRU [Russia’s intelligence force], and [special counsel Robert S.] Mueller may have forced the administration’s hand with his indictments.” He adds that “we are still awaiting sanctions on oligarchs, additional sanctions on Russia’s economy and sanctions against those doing business with Russia’s defense industry. Those are the sanctions that will bite.”
In short, our actions to date are in no way proportionate to Russian aggression which is increasingly bold. As Menendez’s statement explained, “The Russian government continues to aggressively attack democratic institutions and incite destabilizing behavior; its brazen chemical weapons strike on British soil is the latest example of what will happen if there are no serious consequences for the Kremlin’s actions. I expect to see additional sanctions.”
Ironically, we are seeking stronger economic penalties from the European Union in the form of steel and aluminum tariffs than we are from Russia for an assault on our democracy. Moreover, we have seen nothing resembling a concerted plan to protect our election system.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the floor declared, “We have heard from officials who are in charge of cybersecurity, and they’ve got no direction from the White House, no orders to do anything. We’re still waiting for action to harden our election security. And we are still waiting for the president, President Trump, to utter one word of public criticism for what Putin is doing to the U.S. and democracies around the world.”
At his confirmation hearing for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo should be quizzed as to what stronger measures are possible and why we have been foot-dragging. We can only hope that his arrival at State heralds a new willingness to extract an economic and political price from Russia for its violation of international norms. At least the administration no longer thinks there is any doubt as to Russian responsibility for election meddling nor as to the seriousness of its conduct. But then why hasn’t Trump given a speech denouncing Russia’s attack on our democracy? Hmm. Maybe Pompeo can answer that one.