The Biden administration slapped sweeping sanctions on Russia Thursday over Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2020 election, the massive SolarWinds hack and the ongoing occupation of Crimea, signaling it is adopting a tougher posture toward the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The sanctions announcement also showed that the Biden administration is more willing to directly call out Russia’s meddling in US affairs after Trump administration officials had to dance around former President Donald Trump’s frequent unwillingness to criticize Moscow.
Here are the key takeaways from Thursday’s sanctions:
Sanctions now align with the President’s rhetoric
The Trump administration was more than willing to issue sanctions against Russia, and did so on multiple occasions, including over the occupation of Crimea, the poisoning of an ex-spy in the United Kingdom, and even election interference.
But those actions were taken while Trump himself repeatedly refused to condemn Russia’s actions. He would not acknowledge Russia’s election interference in 2016, bristling at the notion Russia helped his campaign, even as his top national security officials unanimously said they agreed with the intelligence community assessment that Moscow interfered.
It went beyond the 2016 election, however. Last year, Trump declined to condemn Russia over the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. He and his top officials downplayed Russia’s meddling in the 2020 election, arguing China was a bigger threat – a claim contradicted by last month’s intelligence community report on 2020 foreign election interference.
President Joe Biden has been vocal in his criticisms of Putin, calling him a “killer” last month and saying Moscow would “pay a price” for its election interference efforts. The sanctions issued Thursday back up that rhetoric.
Biden informed Putin in a call this week he was imposing the sanctions, and he’s seeking a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia, a senior administration official said Thursday.
Sanctions are strongest US response to date to massive hack
The Russia sanctions are the Biden administration’s most significant step yet in responding to the SolarWinds hacking campaign, which has compromised at least nine federal agencies and dozens of private organizations.
Under Thursday’s new executive order, the administration imposed sanctions on six Russian tech companies that it said have supported Russian intelligence. Russian agencies including the FSB, GRU and SVR have conducted “some of the most dangerous and disruptive cyber attacks in recent history,” the Treasury Department said in announcing the sanctions.
US intelligence agencies on Thursday issued a technical advisory warning of the tactics used by Russian agents to compromise network security.
The Biden administration also said it is exploring whether to invoke Trump’s executive order on technology supply chains to introduce additional policies aimed at preventing Russian cyberattacks in the future.
Russian hacking has long been a problem for the US government. The goal of Thursday’s sanctions is to deter Moscow, though it remains to be seen whether they will actually have that effect.
Flicking at collusion, all these years later
With one sentence in a 2,000-word press release, the Treasury Department perhaps did more to lay out the case for potential Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 election than has happened before.
The Treasury statement confirmed that Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian-linked intelligence operative, provided Russian intelligence with “with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy.” He got that inside information from Trump campaign officials.
While the sanctions issued Thursday were tied to Russia’s 2020 election interference efforts – which the US says Kilimnik played a role in – the reference to his meddling in 2016 is perhaps the bigger revelation.
It has long been suspected but never explicitly stated by the US government that Kilimnik passed internal Trump campaign data from former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to Russian intelligence services. The announcement Thursday establishes a simple and direct channel of communication from the upper echelon of the Trump campaign to the Russian agencies that were meddling to help Trump win.
During the early stages of the Russia probe, officials from both parties said this kind of covert relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russians would constitute “collusion.”
This revelation was a long time coming. It took years for special counsel Robert Mueller’s team to reveal that Manafort provided internal campaign information to Kilimnik. About a year later, the Senate Intelligence Committee openly called Kilimnik a Russian agent. But neither went so far as to say Kilimnik gave the information to the Russian government. Thursday’s announcement closes the loop.
After criticism of Trump, no action on Russian bounties
Then-candidate Biden repeatedly criticized Trump for failing to take action after being presented intelligence that Russia had placed bounties on US troops in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, a senior Biden administration official said the US intelligence community had only “low to moderate confidence” in the information about bounties, and said Biden was not taking action to punish Moscow on the issue.
The fact that Biden declined to issue sanctions over the bounties shows is yet another example of why governing is always more complicated than campaigning, particularly when it comes to foreign policy.
“Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin,” Biden said during a virtual town hall in June 2020.
In a first telephone call with Putin in January, Biden raised the issue of bounties. But three months later, his administration is stopping short of punishing Moscow based on an intelligence assessment that relied on detainee information that was collected in a “difficult operating environment” in Afghanistan.
“We have conveyed through diplomatic and intelligence channels strong direct messages on this issue,” a senior administration official said, saying that if a pattern of behavior continues – presumably with a greater degree of confidence – the US would respond.
GOP knocks Biden for not issuing pipeline sanctions
Congressional Republicans praised the Biden administration for taking action against Russia, but they were critical that the sanctions announced Thursday did not include any action to try to prevent the completion of a natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany known as Nord Stream 2.
“I commend the administration for these actions, but I consider them less than a half step forward. What is missing is a robust effort to actually stop the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline,” Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “The lack of Nord Stream 2 sanctions today makes it even more obvious the administration, for unknown reasons, is foot-dragging on this issue.”
Republicans have argued that the Biden administration must impose sanctions on entities involved in the pipeline’s construction under US law, but they have failed to do so. “If the Biden Administration is serious about imposing real costs on the Putin regime’s efforts to undermine U.S. democratic institutions and weaken our allies and partners, then it must ensure the Russian malign influence Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is never completed,” House Foreign Affairs ranking Republican Michael McCaul of Texas said in a statement Thursday.
In an interview last month with CNN’s Dana Bash, Secretary of State Tony Blinken said he made clear to his German counterpart the US views the pipeline as a bad deal.
“It gives Russia more of a weapon using energy as a tool of coercion,” he said.
Foreign policy – and Russia – will keep Biden’s attention
Since taking office in January, Biden has focused on getting a massive Covid-19 relief package signed into law, and now is turning his attention to passing a major infrastructure package through Congress.
But the sanctions are a reminder that foreign policy problems will always be looming and can snatch the focus of a presidency at a moment’s notice.
Blinken this week expressed concerns about Russia’s military buildup along the border with Ukraine, in what’s the largest massing of troops near Ukraine since 2014, when Russian forces invaded and occupied Crimea.
Thursday’s sanctions included punishing Russia for its ongoing occupation of Crimea, seven years later.
The senior administration official said Biden intends to hold a summit with Putin in Europe over the coming months but noted the Kremlin had not responded the US invitation.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Katie Bo Williams contributed to this report.