Obama Finally Hits Back at Russia for Election Hack With Sanctions, Expulsions
But the measures may not deter future mischief — and could be undone by Trump.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama announced tough reprisals against Russia, including imposing economic sanctions and booting dozens of Russian intelligence officials out of the country, in the most vigorous response yet to Moscow’s alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election.
The new sanctions, implemented by executive order, target nine Russian entities and individuals “in response to the Russian government’s aggressive harassment of U.S. officials and cyberoperations aimed at the U.S. election,” according to a statement by the president. Obama also kicked out 35 Russian intelligence operatives.
The administration also publicly described malicious software used by Moscow’s intelligence agencies to infiltrate computer systems; publishing that information could make it more difficult for Russian operatives to carry out similar attacks in the future.
The sanctions and diplomatic expulsions constitute the most visible attempt yet by the White House to strike back at Moscow for an unprecedented campaign against American political organizations that U.S. intelligence officials say may have boosted the candidacy of President-elect Donald Trump.
Trump has repeatedly questioned whether Russia was behind that campaign and accused Democrats of being sore losers in calling for an investigation. “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” he said in a Thursday statement. “Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”
There may be more in store, as Obama hinted he would take covert action as well. “These actions are not the sum total of our response to Russia’s aggressive activities,” he said. “We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized.”
The Obama administration has thus far been wary of retaliating in kind with a cyberattack on Russia, though, fearing escalating a conflict in cyberspace that it does not know how to definitively win. Russia has so far promised tit-for-tat diplomatic reprisals, but it’s unclear whether it will ramp up its cyber-campaign in response.
A senior U.S. administration official told reporters that Russian attempts to influence elections in the United States and allied nations are likely to continue in the future and said Thursday’s retaliatory measures come in response to what he called a multiyear campaign.
But independent experts have criticized what they viewed as White House inaction in the face of a well-documented Russian hacking campaign designed to benefit Trump’s candidacy; Thursday’s measures come seven weeks after the election and more than two months after U.S. intelligence concluded that Russia was behind the hacks. Security experts said it was unclear if the measures would be enough to deter Russia from future meddling, especially given uncertainty over what tack toward Moscow the Trump administration will ultimately take.
Deterring further Russian cyberattacks is important for more than just Washington and the departing Obama administration. Other U.S. allies, including Germany and France, worry that Russia could set its sights on their elections next. Attacks on the German government, including the lower house of parliament, have Berlin concerned that such a campaign may already be underway. On Wednesday, reports emerged that Russia may have hacked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an international rights and monitoring body that oversees the cease-fire in Ukraine.
The senior administration official defended the timing of the sanctions package by arguing that the coordinated measures took time to assemble and that the administration used diplomatic channels to warn Russia in the election’s run-up against meddling. U.S. officials have said they warned Russia not to attack the election infrastructure, such as balloting and counting machines. In the election’s aftermath, U.S. officials say they have collected no evidence that such an attack took place.
In the run-up to the election, the White House debated whether to retaliate against Moscow but decided against any public action, fearful of injecting a measure of partisanship into a geopolitical conflict.
By publicly retaliating at the tail end of his presidency, Obama may be attempting to box in Trump and constrain his ability to partner more closely with Russia, as he vowed to do on the campaign trail. Since the sanctions were implemented by executive order, Trump could theoretically reverse them in less than a month.
But political considerations — including calls from some prominent lawmakers such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for a tougher U.S. stance against Russian mischief — could complicate any efforts by the incoming Trump administration to walk back the latest measures.
“Hypothetically, you could reverse those sanctions, but it wouldn’t make a lot of sense,” the senior administration official said on a conference call with reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Asked Wednesday whether the United States should hit Russia with sanctions, Trump dismissed the idea, saying, “I think we ought to get on with our lives.” He added, confusingly, “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.”
Russian officials predictably slammed the Obama administration’s response.
“We are tired of lies about Russian hackers that continue to be spread in the United States from the very top,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said. “The Obama administration launched this misinformation half a year ago in a bid to play up to the required nominee at the November presidential election and, having failed to achieve the desired effect, has been trying to justify its failure by taking it out with a vengeance on Russian-U.S. relations.”
Russian government officials immediately promised to retaliate. “You realize, of course, reciprocal steps will be made, and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and, quite possibly, the consulates will be cut down to size as well,” Vladimir Dzhabarov, the deputy chairman of the foreign-policy committee in the Russian parliament, told the state-run TASS news agency.
Despite detailed evidence documenting the Russian campaign, Moscow has dismissed the accusations as American propaganda and on Thursday mocked the “hapless” Obama administration’s measures.
The sanctions aim squarely at the Russian security establishment, including its principal intelligence agencies: the Main Intelligence Directorate — the military intelligence unit better known as the GRU — and the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB. Those organizations spearheaded the election hacks, U.S. officials say. The sanctions also target three companies that allegedly supported the Russian government’s hacking operations: the Special Technology Center, Zorsecurity, and the Professional Association of Designers of Data Processing Systems.
The sanctions also target four individuals, all top GRU officials: Igor Korobov, Sergey Gizunov, Igor Kostyukov, and Vladimir Alexseyev. The measures allow for travel bans and asset freezes, but it is unclear to what extent the U.S. Treasury can punish Russian intelligence operatives.
The State Department will also declare 35 Russian intelligence officials in the United States “persona non grata” and shut down two Russian intelligence collection facilities, one in Maryland and one in New York, that double as recreation facilities for Russian personnel. The expulsions come in response to what administration officials describe as an unprecedented post-Cold War campaign of harassment against American diplomats working in Russia.
The Treasury Department also slapped sanctions on two Russian individuals, Evgeniy Bogachev and Aleksey Belan, under a pre-existing executive order. The White House said Bogachev and his “cybercriminal associates” were responsible for the theft of more than $100 million from U.S. businesses and institutions. Belan, according to the White House, compromised at least three major U.S. e-commerce companies’ computer networks.
The Treasury Department declined to answer questions on the record about whether Belan and Bogachev participated in the campaign against the U.S. election. Bogachev, considered one of the shining stars of Russia’s digital criminal underground and who appears to operate with at least the tacit blessing of Kremlin authorities, has been linked to intelligence operations.
Photo credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll