US expels Russian diplomats and imposes sanctions for hacking

The US has announced it will expel 10 Russian diplomats and impose sanctions against dozens of people and companies, holding the Kremlin accountable for interference in last year’s presidential election and the hacking of federal agencies.

The sweeping measures announced on Thursday are meant to punish Russia for actions that US officials say cut to the core of American democracy and to deter future acts by imposing economic costs on Moscow, including by targeting its ability to borrow money.

The sanctions are certain to exacerbate tensions with Russia, which promised a response, even as President Joe Biden said the administration could have taken more punitive measures but chose not to in the interests of maintaining stability.

“We cannot allow a foreign power to interfere in our democratic process with impunity,” Biden said at the White House.

Sanctions against six Russian companies that support the country’s cyber efforts represent the first retaliatory measures against the Kremlin for the hack familiarly known as the SolarWinds breach, with the US explicitly linking the intrusion to the SVR, a Russian intelligence agency.

Though such intelligence-gathering missions are not uncommon, officials said they were determined to respond because of the operation’s broad scope and the high cost of the intrusion on private companies.

The US also announced sanctions on 32 individuals and entities accused of attempting to interfere in last year’s presidential election, including by spreading disinformation.

US officials alleged in a declassified report last month that Russian President Vladimir Putin authorised influence operations to help Donald Trump in his unsuccessful bid for reelection as president, though there’s no evidence Russia or anyone else changed votes.

The actions, foreshadowed by the administration for weeks, signal a harder line against Putin, whom Trump was reluctant to criticise even as his administration pursued sanctions against Moscow.

They mark the administration’s second major foreign policy move in two days, following the announcement of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

Until now, Biden has largely focused on the coronavirus pandemic and economy in his first months in office.

Russian officials spoke of a swift response, with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warning that “a series of retaliatory measures will come in the nearest time.”

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