GP Insights # 504, 18 April 2021
On 16 April, Russia imposed sanctions on eight senior US administration officers, including FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National intelligence Avril Haines. Russia is also set to expel 10 US diplomats and establish new limits on the diplomats and their outposts, curbing the US non-profit groups' activities in the region and rethinking 'agonizing' measures against US businesses in vengeance for the vindictive actions by the US administration. These developments came after the US announced the sanctions on Russia. The Kremlin has directed the US ambassador to Russia to return to Washington in order to hold "serious" and "detailed" consultation.
On 15 April, US President Joe Biden issued sanctions inimical to Moscow with regards to the intrusion of 2020 presidential elections and a cyber-attack among a plethora of transgressions. The sanctions focused on eliminating 16 entities and 16 individuals who attempted to influence the presidential elections, five individuals and three entities connected to the Crimean annexation, and 10 Russian diplomats were expelled from the US. Washington has also sanctioned the newly issued Russian sovereign debt, which has caused a slight ripple in the Russian Ruble and sovereign bonds market.
What is the background?
First, the meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections. According to the 2017 US intelligence report, the Russian government had used the state-funded media channels to disable Hilary Clinton's presidential campaign. Russia had also used its hacking prowess in flooding social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to influence the Americans in their electoral systems and vilify Clinton. Between 2015 to 2017, Facebook connected nearly 80,000 publications to the Russian company, Internet Research Agency. Over 470 accounts and 50,258 Twitter accounts were associated with Russian bots and fake accounts programmed to disseminate false information during the 2016 election. These bots were accountable for nearly 3.8 million tweets; approximately 19 per cent of the total tweets were associated with the 2016 US presidential election. The attacks were linked to the 2011 intervention of Clinton in supporting the protests and interfering in the electoral process of Russia.
Second, the cybersecurity attacks. Orion, a network management offshoot of the SolarWinds company hosting over 300,000 customers worldwide, was hacked by the Russian intelligence known as the SVR. Slipping in through Orion's back door, updates compromising data and networks of the civilians were accessed in an attempt to embezzle national security, defence and related information. Researchers have named the hack as 'Sunburn' and claimed that it would take several years to comprehend the attack fully. For nearly three decades, hackers connected to Moscow are believed to have tried to steal US secrets online.
Third, the change of power in the US and its stand. In Biden's first speech in February 2021, he assured to stand up to Russia. He has openly criticized Russia's offensive actions in Ukraine, unlike his predecessor. In 2014, the Obama-Biden administration was accused of standing by Russia while Crimea was annexed.
What does it mean?
The US is looking to impose costs for a plethora of misconduct from Moscow and deter its future acts. The US actions indicate that it will pursue a stronger frontier than the Trump era and strive for a stable relationship with Russia. The response they have is "resolute but proportionate." The US intelligence has published numerous reports about the cybersecurity attacks and Russian intelligence ventures into US companies. The sanctions imposed by the US may pose obstacles for Russia but considering past experiences, it is unlikely that these sanctions would deter the Kremlin.
The exchange of diplomatic expulsions is an indicator of the fact that the sanctions do not dissuade Moscow. The tensions that have risen after the flaring exchanges could amount to another cold war like situation.