AFTER JOE BIDEN won America’s presidential election last November, some policy wonks speculated that he would overhaul his country’s ever-growing reliance on sanctions as a tool of foreign policy. Those who predicted a roll-back, or just a long pause while the new administration reflected on its options, have been set straight. True, America is contemplating gradual sanctions-relief for Iran. But it has continued to swing a stick at even bigger adversaries. Last month, in concert with other Western countries, it took aim at China, imposing travel bans and asset freezes on several Chinese officials in connection with China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang region. And on April 15th America’s Treasury Department, which oversees its sanctions programmes, announced sweeping sanctions against Russia.
The charge-sheet is long. It includes, among other things, “undermining the conduct of free and fair elections and democratic institutions” in America and its allies; “engaging in and facilitating malicious cyber activities”; “fostering and using transnational corruption to influence foreign governments”; targeting dissidents and journalists (including the now-jailed opposition leader, Alexei Navalny) through “extraterritorial activities”; and, for good measure, “violating well-established principles of international law, including respect for the territorial integrity of states” (eg, by its takeover of Crimea and fostering secessionists in eastern Ukraine).
Mr Biden accuses Russian intelligence agencies and their networks of having interfered in the presidential election of 2020. (The Kremlin had already been accused of meddling in the vote four years earlier.) His administration—and, on the same day, those of Britain and Canada—also points the finger at Russia for the “SolarWinds” cyber intrusion against Western companies and governments, which went undetected for months in 2020 and compromised at least nine federal agencies and more than 100 Western companies.
The range of measures is, according to Janet Yellen, America’s treasury secretary, aimed at “Russia’s continued and growing malign behaviour”. The most striking of them bans American financial institutions from participating in the primary market for rouble bonds issued by Russia’s central bank, its finance ministry or its sovereign-wealth fund, widening a similar, existing ban on non-rouble bonds. It also prohibits American firms from lending to any of the three. They will, though, be allowed to continue trading in the secondary bond market.
These are not the first prohibitions on dealings in Russian sovereign debt. The previous one, in 2019, restricting purchases of dollar-denominated government bonds, caused the rouble to wobble. Russia has been reducing its reliance on foreign buyers for its rouble-denominated debt since America imposed sanctions over its annexation of Crimea in 2014, but they still hold around 20% of it.
America has now formally accused Russia’s foreign-intelligence service, the SVR, of overseeing the SolarWinds hack, which was thought to be one of the largest such cyber-espionage campaigns conducted to date. The resulting sanctions are directed at state organisations and technology firms that allegedly supported the spooks’ efforts. Among them are a research institute and several private IT firms. One of the firms, Positive Technologies, “hosts large-scale conventions that are used as recruiting events for the FSB and GRU”, Russia’s domestic security service and its military intelligence agency, respectively, according to the rap sheet.
The use of sanctions to punish espionage is a notable break with the past. America has previously judged such digital spying against political targets to be fair game. In 2015, for instance, Michael Hayden, a former American spy chief, described China’s hacking of a government personnel database as “honourable espionage work”. America instead focused its ire on more unusual or destructive campaigns, such as Russian election interference or Chinese theft of commercial secrets.
The Biden administration argues that the SolarWinds campaign was, however, unusual in its extraordinary scope, its penetration of the private sector and the risk that Russia might have used its access to disrupt American networks. In practice, though, America and its allies have also conducted so-called supply-chain attacks that are not dissimilar to SolarWinds, in which third-party software or hardware is used as a vehicle to gain access to another network.
The measures relating to election interference, which America says was carried out “at the direction of the leadership of the Russian government”, encompass 16 entities and 16 individuals—and are, said Ms Yellen, “the start of a new US campaign” against Russia’s behaviour. America accuses Russia of assembling a network of state officials, disinformation outlets and companies to “covertly influence” American voters and spread misinformation about candidates and election processes.
One of the targets of the sanctions is SouthFront, which America says is a Russian-registered website that published false content to give the impression that voter fraud in the 2020 election was widespread. Another, InfoRos, claims to be a news agency but is allegedly run by the GRU. A third, the Strategic Culture Foundation, is an online journal allegedly linked to another intelligence agency registered in Russia and accused of creating false narratives about American officials, while trying to conceal its Russian origins.
One of the individuals targeted, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, is alleged to be the financier of a Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency (IRA). Mr Prigozhin also believed to be bankrolling the Wagner Group—mercenaries that serve as a Russian proxy force in Syria, Libya and other battlefields. Also under sanctions is the Pakistan-based Second Eye Solution, which allegedly creates and sells fake identities and, the Americans say, helped the IRA to hide its identity in order to evade sanctions.
As with the targets of all the Treasury’s measures announced this week, all of their property and other interests in America, or any of their assets held or controlled by “US persons” (which includes American banks) are being frozen. It would be a very unwise Russian troll-master, however, who owned a condo in Miami or had an account with Citibank.
If all that were not enough, America also said it would expel ten Russian diplomats in Washington and New York who are suspected of being intelligence officers. The previous mass expulsions came in March 2018, when the Trump administration kicked out 60 suspected Russian spies after the attempted assassination in Britain of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer. Predictably, Russia told ten American diplomats to leave.
The tit-for-tat measures come at a time of heightened tension between America and Russia, amid fears of an escalation in Ukraine as Russia masses troops on the border with its western neighbour in numbers not seen for years.
Mr Biden knows that America still needs to do business with Russia. On April 14th he offered a summit to Mr Putin. The American president said his sanctions could have gone further, but he wanted to avoid escalation in the interest of “a stable, predictable relationship.” Mr Biden may want to talk, but he also intends to carry a big stick.
Editor’s note (April 16th): This article has been updated since it was first published on April 15th
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