Obama’s Russia Sanctions and Putin’s Non-Retaliation

On December 29, U.S. President Barack Obama decided to expel 35 diplomatic officials from Russia’s embassy in Washington D.C. and its consulate in San Francisco, as well as to close two compounds used by the Russian government for intelligence operations located in New York and Maryland. Those retaliations were followed by the imposition of sanctions on Russia’s leading intelligence services, the GRU and the FSB, as well as seven other entities and individuals.

Fighting Back

According to the White House statement on the matter, the actions carried on against Russia were a result of the harassment suffered by American diplomats in Moscow, as well as the country’s interference with the U.S. election process.

Back in March, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding the campaign of intimidation put in motion against American and other Western diplomats stationed in the Russia. While some of the scare tactics had been rather routine, others crossed the line into criminality.

Additionally, as disclosed in a Joint Statement from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in early October, the U.S. Intelligence Community was ‘confident’ that there had been Russian-directed efforts in the form of thefts and disclosures to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election. However, on December 29, the aforementioned statement was further expanded, as the DHS and the FBI officially accused Russian Intelligence services of a decade long campaign of cyber-enabled operations to disrupt the U.S. Government and other American private entities.

Russia’s Cyber Operations

Back in 2007, Estonia fell victim to one of the world’s first major cyber-attacks at the hands of Russian ‘patriot-hackers’, which was followed in the next year by a series of cyber operations in Georgia, which ran concurrently with military intervention. After not giving much importance to cyber capabilities in the final years of the cold war, a mistake that many Russian defense experts argue to have contributed to the Soviet Union’s demise, Moscow has seemed to have realized the advantages of cyber operations as coercive foreign policy tools.

Vladimir Putin has given substantial funds to the FSB for internet monitoring and development of information technology capabilities, making Russia one of the worlds’ cyber ‘heavyweights’, as well as the most dangerous state in cyberspace. By means of being the most ‘connected’ country in the world, the United States is also the biggest target of cyber incidents, a problem that is emphasized by the fact that it struggles to find balance between security and privacy.

Helping Trump?

While initially in disagreement regarding whether the Russian efforts were aimed at undermining confidence in the U.S. electoral system, or to assist Donald Trump in being voted President, the CIA and the FBI are now certain about the latter scenario. According to the CIA’s latest conclusions, Russian hackers breached into computers of Republican organizations and individuals, including House Members, prior to the election. Other political organizations of the Democratic Party were also hacked, and resulted into the disclosure of thousands of Hilary Clinton’s e-mails, while individuals tied to the Russian government were found to be bankrolling ‘troll farms’, which created fake negative news about the Democratic candidate. In spite of the evidence produced by the CIA, on January 3rd Trump’s future White House Press Secretary has reminded that there is ‘zero evidence’ that Russian hacking influenced the outcome of the 2016 elections.

The Russian President has claimed on December 30 that he won’t retaliate to U.S. sanctions, as he plans to restore Russian-American diplomatic ties in cooperation with the new administration – a decision praised by Trump.

The Future

Russia’s penalties, imposed by executive order, can be repealed with a stroke of a pen, since Trump will soon yield executive powers. Given his amicable relations with Putin, intentions to warm US-Russian relations, and refusal to accept the U.S. Intelligence Community’s assessment of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 elections, it should not be shocking if he decides to do so. However, it is important to consider that, politically, such action will find strong opposition, including within his own party, as senior Republicans in Congress have shown their support for Obama’s sanctions. That fact may prove vital in given strength to the President’s order, in spite of the diminishing influence of his administration during the ‘lame duck period’, as showcased by Vladimir Putin’s decision to simply wait for Donald Trump’s inauguration before acting on the matter.

As recently voiced by Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, in response to Russia’s hacking, the two countries are not ‘friends’. In fact, they have been rivals for over 60 years, making spying a normal part of their relation, and turning new cyber operations into a very likely scenario if there is no retaliation for past intrusions. Therefore, and considering that the FBI’s report constitutes more than mere intelligence, entailing to actual forensic evidence, Obama’s response would appear all the more justified, and Trump’s denial even more astounding.

US President Barack Obama. Photo by Pete Souza / public domain

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

David Ferreira

Research Assistant at CEI-IUL. Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science, specialisation in International Relations (ISCTE-IUL).

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