U.S. responds to Russian election hacking with expulsions, sanctions

Saturday, December 31, 2016

On Thursday, the U.S. government expelled 35 diplomats suspected of being Russian spies, and sanctioned the G.R.U. and F.S.B. intelligence agencies. Also sanctioned are several G.S.U. officials and three companies that work with it.

Donald Trump last year, from file.
Image: Michael Vadon.

This is one of many actions the Obama administration has taken in response to a CIA report issued two weeks ago that concluded the Russian government hacked servers belonging to the U.S. Republican and Democratic parties. The CIA report said this was to turn the 2016 presidential election toward president-elect Donald Trump. The alleged spies have been declared "persona non grata"; they and their families have until Sunday to leave U.S. soil but are not under arrest.

"The United States and friends and allies around the world must work together to oppose Russia's efforts to undermine established international norms of behavior, and interfere with democratic governance," said Obama.

Earlier this year, hackers broke into the private servers of both the Republican and Democratic political parties but only released negative information about the Democratic presidential candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The CIA would later name the Russian government responsible. One U.S. intelligence official told Reuters this asymmetrical release of information is why the CIA concluded the goal of the hack was to help Trump win the election rather than simply to disrupt the U.S. electoral process. "Putin believed he would be much friendlier to Russia, especially on the matter of economic sanctions," said another. The U.S. State Department issued a statement saying the expulsions were also in retaliation for harsh treatment of U.S. diplomats in Russia, citing police stops, assaults, and the public disclosure of their personal information on television.

File photo of Vladimir Putin, 2003.
Image: Ricardo Stuckert/ABr.

The U.S. State Department also called for the closure of two compounds, one in Glen Cove, New York and one in Maryland near Washington D.C., where Russian diplomats go to play tennis and relax, saying they are used for "intelligence activities." Russia's United Nations ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, criticized the decision, citing the families with children who are currently there for the Christmas holiday.

Vladimir Putin's Foreign Minister, Sergei Largov, suggested Russia expel 35 U.S. diplomats, a form of retaliation that would have been typical during the Cold War. Putin rejected that idea, calling it "irresponsible democracy," instead saying he would wait for Trump to take office before deciding how to respond. The overall tone from the Moscow has been disdainful, with the head of the Russian Parliament foreign affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachyov saying "this is the agony not even of 'lame ducks,' but of 'political corpses.'"

According to New York Times reporter David E. Sanger, these sanctions may pose a problem for president-elect Donald Trump. After his inauguration, Trump must either withdraw the sanctions or tacitly endorse them by allowing them to remain in place. Trump enjoys a warm relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin expressing both admiration for Putin personally and tolerance of his official decisions, such as the Russian military action in Crimea.

The CIA's Virginia HQ, from file.
Image: Carol M. Highsmith.

"It is time for our country to move on to bigger and better things," said Trump of the interest in the hack. "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 the situation."

Trump previously expressed skepticism regarding Russia's responsibility for the hacks, having said they could have been committed by "someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds." Of the CIA, which issued the report, "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction."

This places Trump at odds with many other members of the Republican Party, such as senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who issued a joint statement calling for investigations into Russian interference in U.S. elections. Unlike the Democrats, who have largely applauded the expulsions, most Republicans wanted a much swifter and harsher response.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said Russia has paid only a "small price" for the hack, asserting that Obama has been too soft on Russia throughout his presidency. The expulsions, unlike economic sanctions, do not apply to the country as a whole, only to specific people and organizations.

Trump has praised Putin's decision to wait until Barack Obama is out of office before responding to these sanctions as "very smart."