U.S. expels Russian diplomats, imposes dozens of new sanctions

The U.S. administration on Thursday announced the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats and sanctions against dozens of people and companies as it moved to hold the Kremlin accountable for interference in last year's presidential election and the hacking of federal agencies.

Retaliatory measures stem from alleged interference in 2020 election, SolarWinds hack of federal agencies

U.S. President Joe Biden's administration announced measures Thursday against Russia, following allegations by U.S. officials last month that Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, authorized influence operations in last year's presidential election. (Jonathan Ernst, Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin/Reuters)

The U.S. administration on Thursday announced the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats and sanctions against dozens of people and companies as it moved to hold the Kremlin accountable for interference in last year's presidential election and the hacking of federal agencies.

The sanctions also target Moscow's ability to borrow money by prohibiting U.S. financial institutions from buying Russian bonds directly from Russian institutions.

"We could have gone further, but I chose not to do so," U.S. President Joe Biden said in comments that were live streamed from the East Room of the White House. 

"The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable and predictable relationship. If Russia continues to interfere with our democracy I am prepared to take further actions to respond," the president said.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House on April 15, 2021, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Biden said he has proposed an in-person meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this summer in Europe, to discuss a range of issues including arms control, security and climate change.

The sanctions announced today, foreshadowed for weeks by the administration, represent the first retaliatory measures announced against the Kremlin for the hack, familiarly known as the SolarWinds breach.

In that intrusion, Russian hackers are believed to have infected widely used software with malicious code, enabling them to access the networks of at least nine agencies in what U.S. officials believe was an intelligence-gathering operation aimed at mining government secrets.

Canada also concerned by hack

Global Affairs Canada on Thursday issued a statement on the SolarWinds breach and what it called "other Russian state-sponsored actors' history of disruptive and destabilizing cyber activities."

"Today, Canada joins the United States and international partners in voicing our concerns related to a Russian cyber-espionage campaign that exploited the SolarWinds Orion platform," read the statement from Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

The statement said "no known Canadian entities have been exploited to date," but investigations are ongoing.

Besides the SolarWinds hack, U.S. officials last month alleged that Putin authorized influence operations to help Donald Trump in his unsuccessful bid for re-election as president, although there's no evidence Russia or anyone else changed votes or manipulated the outcome.

Russia swiftly denounced the actions and warned of retaliation.

Blinken slams Russia's 'reckless actions'

The measures announced Thursday include sanctions on six Russian companies that support the country's cyber activities, in addition to sanctions on 32 individuals and entities accused of attempting to interfere in last year's presidential election, including by spreading disinformation.

The U.S. also sanctioned eight people and entities tied to Russia's occupation of Crimea.

The 10 diplomats being expelled include representatives of Russian intelligence services, the Biden administration said.

Other measures are expected as well, although the administration is not likely to announce them. Officials have been advising that their response to Russia would be in ways both seen and unseen.

"These actions are intended to hold Russia to account for its reckless actions. We will act firmly in response to Russian actions that cause harm to us or our allies and partners," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

But, he added, "where possible, the United States will also seek opportunities for co-operation with Russia, with the goal of building a more stable and predictable relationship consistent with U.S. interests."

Alleged 'bounties' on U.S. troops

The White House also said the president was using diplomatic, military and intelligence channels to respond to reports that Russia encouraged the Taliban to attack U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan based on the "best assessments" of the intelligence community.

Reports of alleged "bounties" surfaced last year, with the Trump administration coming under fire for not raising the issue directly with Russia. The White House did not publicly confirm the reports.

"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," the White House said Thursday.

Putin and then-president Donald Trump met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, in 2019. Trump disputed the legitimacy of intelligence reports that Russia may have been offering bounties to Taliban fighters. (Mikhail Klimenteyev/Kremlin/Reuters)

After the sanctions were announced, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova warned that "such aggressive behaviour will undoubtedly trigger a resolute retaliation."

"Washington should realize that it will have to pay a price for the degradation of the bilateral ties," Zakharova said, adding that "the responsibility for that will fully lie with the United States."

She said the ministry has summoned the U.S. ambassador for a "hard conversation," but wouldn't immediately say what action Russia will take.

2nd round of sanctions

The sanctions send a clear retributive message to Russia and are aimed at serving as a deterrent. But they are certain to exacerbate an already tense relationship between the U.S. and Russia.

Biden urged Putin this week in their second call to "de-escalate tensions" following a Russian military buildup on Ukraine's border, and said the U.S. would "act firmly in defence of its national interests" regarding Russian intrusions and election interference.

In a television interview last month, Biden replied "I do" when asked if he thought Putin was a "killer." He said the days of the U.S. "rolling over" to Putin were done. Putin later recalled his ambassador to the U.S. and pointed to U.S. history, including slavery and the atomic bombing of Japan in the Second World War.

It remained unclear whether the U.S. actions would actually result in changed behaviour, 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.

U.S. officials are still grappling with the aftereffects of the SolarWinds intrusion, which affected agencies including the Treasury, Justice, Energy and Homeland Security departments, and are still assessing what information may have been stolen. The breach exposed vulnerabilities in the supply chain as well as weaknesses in the federal government's own cyber defences.

The actions would represent the second major round of sanctions imposed by the Biden administration against Russia. 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.

With files from CBC News