U.S. imposes new sanctions on Russian entities over 2016 election meddling

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Steven Mnuchin is pictured. | AP Photo

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that Treasury is planning to impose additional sanctions “to hold Russian government officials and oligarchs accountable for their destabilizing activities by severing their access to the U.S. financial system.” | Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says America will level additional sanctions ‘to hold Russian government officials and oligarchs accountable.’

The Treasury Department on Thursday slapped new sanctions on 24 Russian entities and individuals for interfering in the 2016 election and conducting a series of damaging cyberattacks, a major step toward punishing Russia for its increasingly bellicose behavior.

But the move is already prompting calls for more tough action against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government, particularly from Democrats who have lambasted President Donald Trump as overly reluctant to issue sanctions and to decry Moscow’s interference in the affairs of western governments.

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The Trump administration has come under fire for what critics say is a slow response to Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election, and Trump has faced blowback for not more forcefully condemning Russia in the aftermath of this month’s nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in England. The sanctions announced Thursday appeared intended to counteract that narrative.

“The administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, 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.”

Mnuchin added that Treasury is planning to impose additional sanctions “to hold Russian government officials and oligarchs accountable for their destabilizing activities by severing their access to the U.S. financial system.”

The announcement comes amid a growing firestorm over the nerve agent attack in southern England. The British government, the U.S. and others have blamed Moscow for the attack, and Britain moved this week to expel 23 Russian diplomats. Though Thursday’s sanctions are unrelated to that attack, Trump on Thursday said “it certainly looks like the Russians were behind it.”

Thursday’s sanctions go after the individuals that special counsel Robert Mueller indicted last month for participating in a sweeping plot to use online trolls to inflame social divides and undermine faith in U.S. institutions during the 2016 election.

The sanctions target the Internet Research Agency, the Russian organization that Mueller’s team alleged was responsible for the extensive online trolling effort that court documents say was years in the making, involving millions of dollars and potentially hundreds of individuals.

According to the indictment, the IRA sent Russian operatives to the U.S., creaked fake online personas to solicit American activists’ advice about targeting swing states, organized rallies on U.S. soil and wielded the United States’ homegrown social media platforms to worsen the country’s racial, religious and political divides.

On Thursday, the White House sanctioned the IRA and its alleged founder, Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, for their role in “interfering with election processes or institutions.” Prigozhin, sometimes described in Russian media as Putin’s “chef,” has became one of the country’s largest state contractors, according to the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a Russia-based nonprofit that investigates corruption among high-ranking Moscow officials.

The White House also sanctioned Prigozhin’s two main companies, Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering, accusing them of providing funding to the IRA.

Trump has repeatedly avoided acknowledging the assessment of intelligence agencies that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to benefit his campaign, most recently hailing House Intelligence Committee Republicans for a one-party report that there was “NO EVIDENCE OF COLLUSION OR COORDINATION” with Russia.

Democrats have lambasted the administration for declining to penalize entities doing business with Moscow’s defense and intelligence sectors under a separate section of the bipartisan sanctions legislation that Congress sent to Trump’s desk last year.

While Thursday’s announcement of cyber-related sanctions won praise from both sides of the aisle, Republicans were more unequivocal in welcoming the announcement. Democrats continue to view the White House as reluctant to take a hard line against Putin’s government following the 2016 election meddling campaign, which Trump has repeatedly downplayed.

Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Thursday described Thursday’s sanctions as “not enough.” Schumer called on the administration to specifically punish Russian entities linked to the U.K. bioterror attack and take further steps against Putin’s regime.

“We’re still waiting for action to harden our election security, and we’re 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,” Schumer said on the floor. “I say to President Trump, your silence speaks on this issue.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, agreed with that sentiment — calling Thursday’s sanctions a “first step” but adding that Trump’s lack of broader condemnation of Russia “still concerns me.”

“I don’t understand why it’s taken the administration so long to lay out these sanctions,” Warner said in an interview. “They’ve missed deadlines. I think it’s a step in the right direction — but again, most of the entities sanctioned were either already under sanction by Obama or were indicted by special prosecutor Mueller.”

In a statement, outspoken Russia critic Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said the Trump administration “took an overdue step forward today in holding Putin accountable for his brazen attack on our democracy.”

“It is critical that the administration work urgently to fully implement sanctions under the ‘Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act,’ including on those responsible for the attack on the 2016 election and who were recently named in the special counsel’s indictment, as well as on entities operating in the oil and gas sectors,” he said, referring to the 2017 sanctions bill the Senate previously passed.

The administration has explained its decision to hold off on imposing further sanctions targeting Russia’s defense and intelligence sector operations by saying that the sanctions bill itself is “serving as a deterrent” against major deals.

Thursday’s White House sanctions punish Russia’s two main intelligence organizations, including the country’s military intelligence organization, known as the GRU, for being “directly involved in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election through cyber-enabled activities.”

Researchers have accused the GRU’s infamous hacking team “Fancy Bear” of infiltrating the Democratic National Committee and later stealing and leaking the party’s internal documents and communications through fake online personas and the activist group WikiLeaks.

The leaks exacerbated rifts within the Democratic Party and forced Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign as chairwoman of the DNC in July 2016 after internal emails revealed potential favoritism for Hillary Clinton over her primary rival Bernie Sanders.

Thursday’s move goes beyond just a broad condemnation of the GRU. It specifically sanctions six individuals the administration says have served as GRU officials. Four of those individuals were previously sanctioned in December 2016, as part of the Obama administration’s retaliation for Moscow’s election meddling, which also included the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S.

The White House also penalized Russia’s other intelligence service, the FSB — the country’s successor to the KGB — with penalties. The announcement accuses the organization of going after a variety of U.S. government officials, including “White House personnel.” The inclusion is notable because the FSB’s “Cozy Bear” hacking group has long been suspected of — but never officially blamed for — infiltrating White House networks in 2014.

The FSB penalties are the second time the Trump administration has targeted the intelligence unit over hacking. In March 2017, the Justice Department took the unprecedented step of indicting two FSB spies for their role in hacking into Yahoo and stealing data on 500 million users.

The sanctions issued Thursday were coupled with a separate, significant announcement by the administration blaming Russian government hackers for initiating an ongoing operation to penetrate vital U.S. industries, including the energy grid. They follow through on the Trump administration’s promise to punish Russia for launching a game-changing cyberattack in June 2017, which cyber researchers dubbed NotPetya.

The threat came after the U.S. joined with its “Five Eyes” intelligence partners in February to blame the Kremlin for orchestrating the attack, which spread rapidly through Ukraine last year, before spilling into Europe, Asia and America. The virus, powered in part by leaked National Security Agency hacking tools, seized computer networks around the world, disrupting banks, hospitals, shipping routes, nuclear power plants and the main airport in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital.

The White House on Thursday called the June assault “the most destructive and costly cyberattack in history,” noting that “several hospitals in the United States were unable to create electronic records for more than a week.”

Indeed, cyber experts have described the incident as a watershed moment. Not only was the virus destructive on a historic scale, researchers believe it provided an indication of Russia’s cyber prowess that they expect to see deployed elsewhere in the future.

Moscow has frequently used Ukraine — and Eastern Europe more broadly — as a testing ground for its next-generation cyber weapons. In recent years, Kiev has twice blamed its neighbor for shutting down portions of its power grid using increasingly dangerous digital weapons that hackers had never successfully deployed on that scale.

Tim Starks contributed to this report.

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