US intelligence agencies believe that this year Russia mounted an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the American electoral process in an effort to undermine American democracy and ensure the election of Kremlin-friendly Donald Trump.
On Thursday, the Obama administration announced an equally unprecedented effort to punish Moscow with sanctions for its past hacking — and serve notice that future meddling will draw an even harsher response.
The move, which is far more sweeping than the punishments leveled against North Korea or China for other state-sponsored hacking efforts, is going to make it significantly harder for Trump to start his tenure in the White House with an immediate effort to improve ties with Vladimir Putin.
Whom the sanctions target
The sanctions take aim at two of Russia’s major intelligence agencies — the FSB, the main successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, and the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency — which are accused of hacking the Democratic National Committee’s servers and the email account of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta to steal and then release information damaging to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Many of Clinton’s supporters believe that Obama should have released information about the Russia hacking earlier so that she would have had time to respond and highlight Moscow’s apparent desire to boost Trump’s chances.
Obama also targeted individuals that allegedly played a leadership role in ordering the cyberattacks: Igor Valentinovich Korobov, the current chief of the GRU; Sergey Aleksandrovich Gizunov, deputy of the GRU; Igor Olegovich Kostyukov, a first deputy chief of the GRU; and Vladimir Stepanovich Alexseyev, also a first deputy chief of the GRU.
There will also be sanctions against three Russian companies that the administration believes aided the cyberattacks. Two individuals who are accused of hacking into e-commerce companies and stealing millions from American financial institutions will be targeted as well.
In his statement, Obama also hinted that there was more to come, likely in the form of unannounced cyber warfare.
The sanctions are mainly symbolic
Still, it seems doubtful that the new measures will frighten Putin into changing his behavior. Some lawmakers had pressed Obama to embarrass the Russian leader by releasing details of the tens of billions of dollars that he and his closest allies are believed to have squirreled away in a labyrinth of offshore bank accounts, but the White House didn’t do so. It’s also enormously doubtful that the GRU officials targeted by the sanctions keep any assets in US banks or would want to travel here anytime soon.
In a separate — but clearly related — statement, the Obama administration ordered 35 Russian diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours, which it says is a response to the harassment of US diplomatic personnel in Russia. It also said that as of noon on Friday, Russians would be denied access to Russian government–owned compounds in Maryland and New York that they use for “intelligence-related purposes.”
In a statement on the sanctions, Obama said that “all Americans should be alarmed,” and made it clear that he believes the hacks were nothing less than a direct order from the Kremlin. “These data theft and disclosure activities could only have been directed by the highest levels of the Russian government,” he said.
Russia’s response to Obama’s moves has been striking.
On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov publicly recommended that Russia expel 35 US diplomats and shut down two US diplomatic facilities as a tit-for-tat. But hours later, Putin said that no such act of retaliation was going to happen.
"We will not create problems for US diplomats. We won't expel anyone. We won't forbid their families and children to use their usual recreation places during the New Year's celebration," said Putin.
And he went a step further, inviting the children of US diplomats to join traditional Christmas parties in the Kremlin.
Why did Russia deviate from its typical diplomatic protocol of tit-for-tat? Putin is preparing for Trump to take office. He reserved the right to respond to the US for its sanctions in the future, but said that it would refrain from doing so until Trump shows his cards on his Russia policy.
"Further steps towards the restoration of Russian-American relations will be built on the basis of the policies carried out by the administration of President Trump," said a statement from the Kremlin.
The divide between Obama and Trump is bigger than ever
In a statement in response to the announcement of the sanctions, Trump sounded nonchalant about the entire issue, saying, “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.” But he indicated that he plans to "meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”
So far, Trump has consistently expressed skepticism about US intelligence agencies’ assessments that Russia launched the cyberattacks to tip the election in his favor, and said as recently as Wednesday that the entire domain of cyber warfare was too complex for him to even be curious about:
“I think we ought to get on with our lives,” he said. “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of [the] computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on.”
A Trump ally made an even more outlandish comment Thursday, arguing that Russia may have done the US a service by releasing the stolen documents.
“If Russia succeeded in giving the American people information that was accurate, then they merely did what the media should have done,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) said on MSNBC.
Obama has set up the new penalties by executive order — which means that if Trump wants to reverse them, he can do so with the stroke of a pen, and without the sign-off of Congress. But it’s not really that simple.
Trump faces a dilemma on Russia policy
Trump is now in an awkward position. On one hand, he’s indicated that he wants to warm US-Russian relations and gain Putin’s trust, and lifting these new sanctions would be the easiest way to get that process started. But if he decides to lift the measures, he’ll be rejecting the unanimous and explicit findings of the intelligence agencies he oversees.
He’s also likely to face pushback from Russia hawks in his own party. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham released a joint statement Thursday arguing that the Obama sanctions don’t go far enough, describing them as a “small price for Russia to pay,” and pledging to lead an effort in Congress to impose stronger sanctions on Russia using legislation.
House Speaker Paul Ryan similarly endorsed Obama’s move as “overdue” and said that Russia “has consistently sought to undermine” the US — both comments at odds with Trump’s jarringly soft public statements about Moscow.
Obama has ordered a comprehensive review of election-related hacking that goes back to 2008. There isn’t an official date for its release, and it’s unclear how much of it will be declassified. But it is expected to be completed before Obama leaves office, and all the Democratic senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee have urged him to declassify the findings related to Russia’s actions during the 2016 election.
Regardless of what Obama chooses to do, imposing the sanctions will have one immediate and unmistakable effect: boxing Trump in so he’ll have a harder time cozying up to the foreign leader who seems to have worked hard to ensure he’d win the presidency.