Washington – The United States on Thursday took its most notable action against Russia since Donald Trump became president, slapping sanctions on a group of Russian individuals and entities, including Moscow’s intelligence services, for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and malicious cyber attacks.
Under pressure to act, the administration still deferred making a move targeting Russian government officials and oligarchs, those closest to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Thursday’s announcement marked the first time that the U.S. government stated publicly that Russia had attempted to break into the American energy grid, which U.S. security officials have long warned may be vulnerable to debilitating cyber attacks from hostile adversaries.
Trump has faced fierce criticism in the United States for doing too little to punish Russia for the election meddling and other actions, and a special counsel is looking into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians, an allegation the president denies.
Combined with the United States joining Britain in blaming Moscow for poisoning a former Russian spy in southern England, the actions represented another plunge in U.S.-Russian relations despite Trump’s stated desire for improved ties.
“The administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in announcing the new sanctions.
Trump has frequently questioned a January 2017 finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 campaign using hacking and propaganda in an effort eventually aimed at tilting the race in Trump’s favour. Russia denies interfering in the election.
But Mnuchin was unequivocal in saying that Thursday’s Treasury action “counters Russia’s continuing destabilising activities, ranging from interference in the 2016 election to conducting destructive cyber-attacks.”
A senior administration official told Reuters that Trump, who campaigned on warmer ties with Putin, has grown exasperated with Russian activity.
The Treasury Department aimed the sanctions at 19 Russian individuals and five groups. Sixteen of the Russian individuals and entities sanctioned were indicted on Feb. 16 as part of Mueller’s criminal investigation. While Trump has frequently called the Russia probe a “witch hunt,” the new sanctions appear to affirm Mueller’s investigative strategy.
Trump told reporters during a White House event with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar that “it certainly looks like the Russians were behind” the use of a nerve agent to attack Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent in England. Trump called it “something that should never, ever happen, and we’re taking it very seriously, as I think are many others.”
Russian government hackers since at least March 2016 “have also targeted U.S. government entities and multiple U.S. critical infrastructure sectors, including the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors,” a Treasury Department statement said.
A senior administration told reporters on a conference call that Russian actors infiltrated parts of the U.S. energy sector.
“We were able to identify where they were located within those business systems and remove them from those business systems,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.