In a rare move under the Trump administration, the White House publicly accused Russia of recent cyber attacks in the United States and abroad and announced repercussions against Russian individuals and entities in response. U.S. Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin announced on March 15 that five Russian entities and 19 individuals would be subject to sanctions from the U.S. government, following findings of evidence that they had participated in efforts to hack the United States’ 2016 election, as well as the country’s infrastructure. The alleged cyber attacks are in addition to the NotPeya attack, also denounced in statements from the White House, which destroyed data on systems across 64 countries. The list includes all 13 of those indicted in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings on interference in the 2016 election.
“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,” Mnuchin said in an official statement. “These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia. Treasury intends to impose additional CAATSA sanctions, informed by our intelligence community, to hold Russian government officials and oligarchs accountable for their destabilizing activities by severing their access to the U.S. financial system.”
Although the statement suggests that the White House, under investigation for potential collusion with Russia in the 2016 election, is taking an uncharacteristically harsh stance against Russian interference, the retaliation against those accused in Mnuchin’s statement likely means little in the way of hindering the companies and individuals believed to be behind the cyber attacks. With nothing suggesting the Russian actors have any financial holdings or investments in the United States that would be affected by sanctions, the move functions primarily as a symbol and is largely inconsistent with the Trump administration’s broader relationship with Russia. It also promptly follows scrutiny of the administration in the same week, when U.S. President Donald Trump avoided naming Russia as the culprit in the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy living in Britain and his daughter, both of whom remain in critical condition.
With the announcement of new sanctions came a newly strengthened statement on the White House’s public stance of innocence in Russian collusion and commitment to hold Russia accountable for its actions. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders announced the administration’s sympathy with the U.K. and its own retaliation against Russia following the nerve agent attack that British Prime Minister Theresa May argues the Kremlin is responsible for.
“They’re going to have to decide whether or not they want to be a good actor or a bad actor. I think you can see from the actions that we’ve taken up until this point, we’re going to be tough on Russia until they decide to change their behaviour,” Sanders said in a press conference on March 15.
However, scrutiny of Trump’s relationship with Russia goes back much further than his vague comments on Russia’s alleged actions in the United Kingdom and plays a large role in the current investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian involvement in the 2016 election. The administration has done little to ease suspicions, and if anything, has only furthered them for the most part. Trump has been widely criticized for avoiding any public criticism of Russia and its freshly re-elected president Vladimir Putin, often calling for the countries to work together.
Despite Sanders’ apparently harsh statement, she additionally emphasized the possibility of working with Russia to counter foreign threats, such as North Korea’s nuclear capacity. In January, sanctions against Russia that were passed in a bipartisan bill were deemed unnecessary to implement at the time by the White House. Further, Trump’s lawyer suggested on March 15 that it was time to put an end to Mueller’s investigation, fueling rumours that Mueller could be fired, a move which even Republican officials have denounced.
March 18 marks the re-election of Vladimir Putin in Russia for another six-year term and solidifies Russia’s trajectory of espionage and cyber attacks. Without a meaningful response from the United States, it remains unclear what role Russia could play in the country’s upcoming election in November. Despite wide documentation of Russia’s interference and condemnation from top officials, little has been put into effect that addresses the evidence of hacking in the 2016 elections or plans to protect against such actions in the future.
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