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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Putin plots revenge on US over sanctions

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Vladimir Putin is weighing up his options as he plots his revenge for the latest round of American sanctions on Russia, the Kremlin has said. 

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said Washington and Moscow clearly do not share the same view of how to create mutually beneficial ties a day after Joe Biden announced economic penalties for election interference and data hacking that he blames on Russia.

Peskov said the Russian president is weighing up counter sanctions but has not made a final decision yet, adding that an the offer of a summit between the two leaders remains on the table for the time being.

But, he added, Putin is only willing to cooperate with Biden insofar as Biden is will to cooperate with Putin. He spoke as Finnish President Sauli Niinisto officially offered his country as a venue for the talks.

Vladimir Putin (pictured holding a security council meeting) is weighing up his options as he decides how to respond to the latest round of sanctions on Russia by the US, his spokesman has said

On Thursday, Biden hit Russia in its wallet – restricting its sovereign debt market and sanctioning a total of 40 people an entities it accused of of being linked to data hacking and election interference – and expelled 10 diplomats, saying the response was ‘proportionate’ and he could have gone further.

He then renewed calls for Putin to ‘de-escalate’ the situation in eastern Ukraine, which has seen Russia mass some 80,000 troops on the border amid warnings that number could top 115,000 by next week amid fears of invasion.

In a sign that Putin may be listening, Peskov said today that there has been less fighting between Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine’s east and the Ukrainian army which Moscow was using as a pretext to build up its armies.

But he added that it is not yet the time to fully relax border tensions and said Moscow continues to monitor the situation closely.  

The Kremlin said that Joe Biden and Putin clearly have different ideas about how to build ties after the US sanctioned Russia, but that his offer of a summit is still on the table for the time being

The Kremlin said that Joe Biden and Putin clearly have different ideas about how to build ties after the US sanctioned Russia, but that his offer of a summit is still on the table for the time being 

Speaking on Thursday as he announced the sanctions, Biden said: ‘I was clear with President Putin we could have gone further, but I chose not to do so. 

‘I chose to be proportionate. The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable predictable relationship,’ he said.

But, he warned, if Russia hit back, the US would strike harder. ‘I urged [Putin] to respond appropriately, not to exceed it, because we can move as well,’ he said.

The United States issued the sanctions because of Russian interference in American elections, the SolarWinds cyber attack, and its aggressive actions in the Ukraine. The White House argues any domestic interference or interference with foreign allies is a threat to the US.

‘If Russia continues to interfere with our democracy. I’m prepared to take further actions to respond. It is my responsibility as president of the United States to do so,’ Biden said.

‘Where Russia seeks to violate the interests of the United States we will respond. We will always stand in defense of our country, our institutions, our people and our allies,’ the president said. 

He said he was hopeful Russia would accept his offer to meet for a summit in a third nation this summer.

‘I proposed that we meet in person this summer in Europe,’ he said. ‘to address the range of issues facing both of our countries. Our teams are discussing that possibility right now.’

Biden’s remarks come as the United States cancelled the deployment of two US warships from the Black Sea despite warning Putin there would be ‘repercussions’ for the troop build-up in Ukraine.

Last week, Turkey said Washington was sending two warships to the Black Sea, in a decision Russia called an unfriendly provocation.  

But the Biden administration reversed the decision after the Kremlin warned them to ‘stay away for their own good’, and gave Putin the chance to ramp up his military presence in Crimea and near the Ukrainian border.

White House officials decided not to send the ships to avoid needlessly escalating the situation with Russia over the Ukraine, a US defense official told Politico.

Hours later, Putin took advantage of Biden’s U-turn by closing off the Kerch Strait between Crimea and Russia, blocking all foreign warships from getting to Ukraine until October 2021. 

Ukraine said the move was an ‘act of war’ and were disappointed foreign destroyers had turned around before one of Moscow’s biggest escalations in the last 30 days.

The Kerch Strait is a crucial access for the Ukrainian ports of Mairupol and Berdyansk. Commercial ships will still be allowed to pass through, but the blockade leave the region vulnerable in the face of Russian aggression.

Washington’s change in the region came on the day Biden announced sweeping new sanctions against Moscow as the White House seeks to rein in Russian aggression while avoiding an all-out war with the Kremlin.

‘We have no desire to be in an escalating war with Russia,’ a senior administration official said Thursday on a briefing call with reporters, saying the White House doesn’t want things ‘spinning out of control.’

‘We do not seek a downward spiral. We can and think we can avoid that,’ the official said.

Putin is continuing to build up his forced on the border with Ukraine, as the government warns troops numbers could swell to 110,000 with 7,000 tanks and other vehicles in support

Putin is continuing to build up his forced on the border with Ukraine, as the government warns troops numbers could swell to 110,000 with 7,000 tanks and other vehicles in support

Officials made it clear, however, that the administration ‘will not accept [Russia’s] destabilizing behavior that harms the United States, its allies and its partners.

Russia called in America’s ambassador in response.

Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a televised briefing that Ambassador John Sullivan had been summoned for a ‘difficult conversation.’

And she said that a Russian response to the sanctions was ‘unavoidable.’

‘Such aggressive behavior, without question, will receive a decisive push back, a response to the sanctions is unavoidable,’ she said. ‘In Washington, they must realize that it’s necessary to pay for the degradation of bilateral relations. Responsibility for what is happening lies entirely on the U.S.’

To give the sanctions teeth – in a way financial sanctions have not deterred Russia before – the US is seeking to choke off lending to the Russian government.

The US also expelled 10 diplomats in retaliation for the Kremlin’s interference in American elections, its aggressive actions in the Ukraine, and the SolarWinds cyber hack.

The Treasury Department and Western allies – including the UK and Canada – also targeted eight individuals and entities associated with the ‘ongoing occupation and repression in Crimea’. 

‘The Transatlantic community stands united in supporting Ukraine against unilateral Russian provocations along the Line of Contact in eastern Ukraine, in occupied Crimea, and along Ukraine’s borders, as well as agreeing on the need for Russia to immediately cease its military buildup and inflammatory rhetoric,’ the White House said.  

Manafort’s associate Konstantin Kilimnik sanctioned  for passing polling data to the Kremlin

One of the individuals sanctioned Thursday by the U.S. government was Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian-Ukrainian political consultant who worked with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort as a lobbyist for the pro-Russia president of Ukraine.

Kilimnik was indicted in Robert Mueller’s 2018 investigation for carrying out election influence operations on behalf of Russian intelligence services.

The Senate Intelligence Committee assessed that Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer and found that Manafort passed him sensitive internal polling data and campaign strategy.

The Treasury Department, in its sanction’s notice, found that Kilimnik provided Russian intelligence ‘with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy’ during the 2016 election.

Treasury noted that Kilimnik, who is wanted by the FBI on charges of obstruction of justice, helped promote the false narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election. Kilimnik and his wife live in a heavily-fortified residence outside of Moscow.

Konstantin Kilimnik in a March 2006 photo

Konstantin Kilimnik in a March 2006 photo

The White House also denounced Moscow for offering the Taliban bounties for U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan.

But a senior administration official noted the US intelligence community has only ‘low to moderate confidence’ that Russia offered bounties on American troops and isn’t imposing any punishment on Moscow for the possible action right now. 

‘The United States Intelligence Community assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019, including through financial incentives and compensation,’ the official said. 

Administration officials described its actions on Thursday as ‘tailored and proportional’ and reiterated it seeks a ‘predictable and stable’ relationship with Moscow. 

In a series of actions on Thursday, the United States sanctioned 32 Russian entities and individuals along with six technology companies, formally attributed the SolarWinds cyber breach to Russian intelligence agencies, and accused Moscow of still trying to hack American targets.

‘The President signed this sweeping new authority to confront Russia’s continued and growing malign behavior,’ said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in a statement. The Treasury Department is in charge of carrying out the sanctions.

‘Treasury is leveraging this new authority to impose costs on the Russian government for its unacceptable conduct, including by limiting Russia’s ability to finance its activities and by targeting Russia’s malicious and disruptive cyber capabilities,’ she said. 

Biden signed an executive order Thursday morning authorizing the sanctions and expelling of diplomats, who the administration claims includes representatives of Russian intelligence services.  

The administration specifically cites Russian interference in free and fair elections, its ‘malicious cyber activities’ against the United States, fostering corruption to influence foreign governments, targeting dissidents or journalists,  undermining security in countries important to American national security and violating well-established principles of international law, including respect for the territorial integrity of states. 

It also criticized Russian for offering the Taliban bounties on U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan but said that would be handled through diplomatic channels. 

‘Given the sensitivity of this matter, which involves the safety and well-being of our forces, it is being handled through diplomatic, military and intelligence channels,’ the White House said in a statement.  

President Biden announced on Wednesday he will remove all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11th.  

The executive order also expanded an existing ban on US banks trading in Russian government debt. It prohibits U.S. financial institutions from buying new bonds directly from Russia’s central bank, finance ministry and the country’s massive sovereign-wealth fund after June 14. 

Republicans on Capitol Hill praised Biden’s tough response.

‘I think this is a good step. Keep it up,’ said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. 

‘I applaud him,’ said Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa. ‘And I think that’s all you have to say – he’s doing the right thing.’

The administration has been warning the actions are coming as President Biden takes a much harsher stance against Moscow than his predecessor, Donald Trump. 

Biden spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to warn him.

‘He did not hold back on his concerns, including reiterating that there will be consequences to the actions that were taken. I expect you will know more about that soon,’ White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of the call on Wednesday.  

In its Thursday announcement, the administration targeted six Russian technology companies it claims are supporting Kremlin intelligence agencies.

The administration also blamed – for the first time – Russian intelligence agencies for the SolarWinds cyber hack, which Moscow denies. The US said it had ‘high confidence’ the hack was masterminded by the SVR, one of the Russian intelligence agencies that was also involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee six years ago.

And the Biden criticized the Russian intelligence agencies for their involvement in the August 2020 poisoning of Aleksey Navalny and its targeting of Russian journalists.

Additionally, the National Security Agency on Thursday issued guidelines for companies on how to counter Russian cyber actions. The agency said it was taking such action to ‘highlight additional tactics, techniques, and procedures being used; by Russian intelligence agencies ‘so that network defenders can take action to mitigate against them. 

The massive Russian hacking campaign – familiarly known as the SolarWinds breach -targeted at least nine vital federal agencies, including the Treasury, Justice, Energy and Homeland Security departments. The scale of the hack is still being determined. 

Ukrainian troops man trenches in the eastern Donbas region as the country's foreign minister warns Moscow it will bear 'very painful consequences' if it invades

Ukrainian troops man trenches in the eastern Donbas region as the country’s foreign minister warns Moscow it will bear ‘very painful consequences’ if it invades

 

Pictured: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits positions of armed forces near the frontline with Russian-backed separatists in Donbass region, Ukraine April 9, 2021

Pictured: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits positions of armed forces near the frontline with Russian-backed separatists in Donbass region, Ukraine April 9, 2021

BIDEN’S SANCTIONS ON RUSSIA DURING TROOP BUILD-UP IN CRIMEA

 The White House listed a number of reprisals against Moscow for the Ukraine build-up, election interference, the ‘bounties’ on Afghanistan soldiers and the SolarWinds hack

ADDITIONAL SANCTIONS 

Treasury sanctioned 32 entities and individuals carrying out Russian government-directed attempts to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and other acts of disinformation and interference. This action seeks to disrupt the coordinated efforts of Russian officials, proxies, and intelligence agencies to delegitimize our electoral process. The U.S. government will continue to pursue those who engage in such activity. Treasury, in partnership with the European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada, sanctioned eight individuals and entities associated with Russia’s ongoing occupation and repression in Crimea. The Transatlantic community stands united in supporting Ukraine against unilateral Russian provocations along the Line of Contact in eastern Ukraine, in occupied Crimea, and along Ukraine’s borders, as well as agreeing on the need for Russia to immediately cease its military buildup and inflammatory rhetoric. 

AFGHANISTAN BOUNTIES

The Administration is responding to the reports that Russia encouraged Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan based on the best assessments from the Intelligence Community (IC). Given the sensitivity of this matter, which involves the safety and well-being of our forces, it is being handled through diplomatic, military and intelligence channels. The safety and well-being of U.S. military personnel, and that of our allies and partners, is an absolute priority of the United States. 

EXPELLING DIPLOMATIC PERSONNEL 

l The United States is expelling ten personnel from the Russian diplomatic mission in Washington, DC. The personnel include representatives of Russian intelligence services. 

RESPONSES TO THE SOLAR WINDS HACK 

Today the United States is formally naming the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), also known as APT 29, Cozy Bear, and The Dukes, as the perpetrator of the broad-scope cyber espionage campaign that exploited the SolarWinds Orion platform and other information technology infrastructures. The U.S. Intelligence Community has high confidence in its assessment of attribution to the SVR. The SVR’s compromise of the SolarWinds software supply chain gave it the ability to spy on or potentially disrupt more than 16,000 computer systems worldwide. 

The scope of this compromise is a national security and public safety concern. Moreover, it places an undue burden on the mostly private sector victims who must bear the unusually high cost of mitigating this incident. Today, the National Security Agency, the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are jointly issuing a cybersecurity advisory, ‘Russian SVR Targets U.S. and Allied Networks,’ that provides specific details on software vulnerabilities that the SVR uses to gain access to victim devices and networks. The advisory also provides specific steps that network defenders can take to identify and defend against the SVR’s malicious cyber activity. Additionally, the SVR’s compromise of SolarWinds and other companies highlights the risks posed by Russia’s efforts to target companies worldwide through supply chain exploitation. Those efforts should serve as a warning about the risks of using information and communications technology and services (ICTS) supplied by companies that operate or store user data in Russia or rely on software development or remote technical support by personnel in Russia. The U.S. government is evaluating whether to take action under Executive Order 13873 to better protect our ICTS supply chain from further exploitation by Russia. 

GLOBAL CYBERSECURITY  

 The United States continues to strongly affirm the importance of an open, interoperable, secure, and reliable Internet. Russia’s actions run counter to that goal, which is shared by many of our allies and partners. To strengthen our collective approach to bolstering cybersecurity, we are announcing two additional steps:

First, the United States is bolstering its efforts to promote a framework of responsible state behavior in cyberspace and to cooperate with allies and partners to counter malign cyber activities. We are providing a first-of-its kind course for policymakers worldwide on the policy and technical aspects of publicly attributing cyber incidents, which will be inaugurated this year at the George C. Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany. We are also bolstering our efforts through the Marshall Center to provide training to foreign ministry lawyers and policymakers on the applicability of international law to state behavior in cyberspace and the non-binding peacetime norms that were negotiated in the United Nations and endorsed by the UN General Assembly.

Second, we are reinforcing our commitment to collective security in cyberspace. The Department of Defense is taking steps to incorporate additional allies, including the UK, France, Denmark, and Estonia, into the planning for CYBER FLAG 21-1, which is an exercise designed to improve our defensive capabilities and resiliency in cyberspace. CYBER FLAG 21-1 will build a community of defensive cyber operators and improve overall capability of the United States and allies to identify, synchronize, and respond in unison against simulated malicious cyberspace activities targeting our critical infrastructure and key resources.

Russian hackers are believed to have infected widely used software with malicious code, enabling them to access the networks of the federal agencies. Officials believe it was an intelligence gathering operation aimed at mining government secrets.

The sanctions, foreshadowed for weeks by the Biden administration, are the first retaliatory action announced against the Kremlin for last year’s hack. 

The sanctions are intended to send a clear retributive message to Russia and to deter similar acts in the future. 

They come amid an already tense relationship between the U.S. and Russia amid a large Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine and in Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014. 

President Biden told Putin this week in their call to ‘de-escalate tensions’ following a Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s border, and said the U.S. would ‘act firmly in defense of its national interests’ regarding Russian intrusions and election interference.

Ukraine and the West have become worried about the Russian troops’ concentration and have urged Moscow to pull them back. 

Russia has argued that it’s free to deploy its forces on its territory and sternly warned the government in Kyiv against using force to reclaim control of the rebel-held territory east where more than 14,000 people have died in seven years of fighting.

But the Ukraine has warned Russia that it will bear ‘very painful’ consequences if it invades as Vladimir Putin continues to mass his forces in eastern Europe. 

Dmytro Kuleba, the country’s foreign minister, said Thursday that Moscow is ‘openly’ threatening Ukraine with ‘destruction’ by stationing 80,000 troops along its border – with more arriving every day. 

‘Today, the four of us can firmly declare that we condemn the exacerbation of the situation by Russia, the actions and statements of Moscow aimed at escalating tensions,’ Kuleba said at a joint news conference with the Baltics ministers in Kyiv.

‘The world is on the side of Ukraine and international law, and this is one of the elements of restraining Russia from reckless actions,’ he added.  

It remained unclear whether the U.S. actions would actually result in changed behavior, especially since past measures by the U.S. have failed to bring an end to Russian hacking. 

The Obama administration expelled diplomats from the U.S. in 2016 in response to interference in that year’s presidential election. 

And though Trump was often reluctant to criticize Putin, his administration also expelled diplomats in 2018 for Russia’s alleged poisoning of an ex-intelligence officer in Britain. 

Last month, the U.S. sanctioned seven mid-level and senior Russian officials, along with more than a dozen government entities, over a nearly fatal nerve-agent attack on opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his subsequent jailing. 



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