On December 29, President Obama announced new sanctions against Russia that included the expulsion of 35 diplomats and the closure of two Russian recreational compounds in New York and Maryland. The cyber-attacks allegedly ordered by Moscow against the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Hillary Clinton’s campaign and other political organizations, were cited as a reason.
The president issued an executive order «to have sanctioned nine entities and individuals: the GRU and the FSB, two Russian intelligence services; four individual officers of the GRU; and three companies that provided material support to the GRU’s cyber operations». The statement says «In addition, the secretary of the treasury is designating two Russian individuals for using cyber-enabled means to cause misappropriation of funds and personal identifying information».
The steps are part of a sweeping package. Obama added that more actions would be taken, «some of which will not be publicized». Several Obama administration officials, including Vice President Joseph. Biden, have suggested that there may also be a covert response, one that would be obvious to Mr. Putin but not to the public.
President Obama had been threatening Moscow with «response» to the alleged attacks since October. He has promised to come up with a «broader» report on alleged Russian activities but introduced the punitive measures before such a paper could see light.
In his remarks on the president’s statement, President-elect Donald Trump said: «It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things». He has previously dismissed reports of Russian interference in the election. In theory, the sanctions mentioned above could easily be pulled back by Trump, who has insisted that the ballyhoo raised over the alleged Russian cyber-activities was merely an attempt to delegitimize his electoral win.
The action is one of the most far-reaching diplomatic expulsions ordered by the United States in many years. No deportation of such scope has taken place since 2001 when the Bush administration ordered about 50 Russian diplomats to leave the country after the arrest of Robert Philip Hanssen, an FBI agent charged with spying for Russia. In 1985, in a similarly broad expulsion order, the Reagan administration ordered 25 Soviet diplomats to leave the country in retaliation for Moscow's expulsion of five US diplomats involved in spying activities. Back then a Navy warrant-officer was accused of spying. Unlike those cases, this time the decision announced by President Obama lacked any real cause or evidence to justify it.
The Joint DHS, ODNI, FBI Statement on Russian Malicious Cyber Activity issued on December 29, is hardly convincing. There is nothing there but a list of IP addresses and some attempts to pinpoint the origin. The report does not specify what exactly damage was done to those who fell victims to the alleged attacks.
For instance, the paper says, «The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process». Wikileaks have always been anti-Clinton but what relation does it have to Russia? Is it what one calls «proof»?
Or take this one – «Some states have also recently seen scanning and probing of their election-related systems, which in most cases originated from servers operated by a Russian company. However, we are not now in a position to attribute this activity to the Russian Government». If the authors are «not in the position», then what the fuss is about? How come it proves anything like a Russian connection?
The report based on «cut and paste» method describes the actions of perpetrators – something any hacker would have done – but there is not a thing to show Moscow was involved. Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, has said that «there is no proof whatsoever» that Russian intelligence sources are responsible for hacking thousands of Democratic National Committee emails.
Besides, almost all of this information has been on the public record for months, much of published by private security firms. The paper describes some techniques and details, but there is nothing like a smoking gun.
The steps taken by the current US administration makes spring to mind the story about multiple «sources» who assured the world community in 2003 that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had «weapons of mass destruction» to make the United States breach international law and get involved in the never ending conflict with a huge death toll and a cost exceeding $2 trillion.
The US administration is going to any length to spoil the relationship with Russia before Donald Trump takes office. This effort is joined by Congress.
On December 8, the US House of Representatives passed an annual intelligence policy authorization bill (H.R.6480). The measure restricts the movements of Russian diplomats in the United States. The new law orders to create a presidentially-appointed group – a powerful new committee across the security services – to counter «active measures by Russia to exert covert influence, including by exposing falsehoods, agents of influence, corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism, and assassinations carried out by the security services or political elites of the Russian Federation or their proxies».
The measure makes remember McCarthyism – the days «witch hunt» was practiced to accuse many innocent people of being Communists involved in the activities to damage the US.
In line with the 2015 Intelligence Authorization Act, all Russian nationals holding supervisory positions at US embassy and consulates in Russia were replaced with American citizens. The legislation required US diplomatic centers in Russia, and any other country that shares a land border with the Russian Federation, to have a «sensitive compartmented information facility». The male embassy employees, including Marines guarding the embassy, were forbidden to make acquaintances with Russian women.
There are other examples to prove that US administration officials and lawmakers are trying to prevent a potential thaw in the Russia-US relations. Senators in both parties are pledging to push for additional sanctions against Russia next year. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has said that he will introduce legislation in January that will include «comprehensive enhanced sanctions».
Obama’s moves «likely will box in the Trump administration, if not legally then certainly politically, because it’s going to be hard for the administration to come in and say on day one all the reports were untrue, the FBI was wrong, the CIA was wrong», said Eric Lorber, a senior adviser at the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. «It will be difficult for the incoming administration to make that argument to the American people and say the sanctions should be completely done away with».
A supposition that Donald Trump may even be impeached if he goes too far in his effort to improve the relations with Russia has been floated recently.
Diplomatic expulsions are normally met with reciprocal action. Not this time. Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would not expel any American diplomats from Russia in response to new US sanctions. He even invited the diplomats and their families to a party in the Kremlin. It ran contrary to what the Foreign Ministry had initially suggested but that’s what President Putin finally decided – no expulsion wars. Remember the Michelle Obama's dignified restraint: «When they go low, we go high»?
Instead, Moscow would wait for the actions of President-elect Donald Trump, who will take office on Jan. 20, before deciding on any further steps in relations with Washington. «While we reserve the right to respond, we will not drop to this level of irresponsible diplomacy, and we will make further steps to help resurrect Russian-American relations based on the policies that the administration of D. Trump will pursue», Putin said in a statement.
The US has a record of being the pot calling the kettle black. During the Obama’s tenure, the administration was involved in many hacking scandals. It’s enough to remember the Edward Snowden’s leaks and other sources to prove Washington was spying on foreign heads of state, diplomatic talks, and corporate negotiations. Many times the administration was caught lying.
All the facts and events mentioned above lead to the gist of the problem – the fact that no international law regulates IT operations. The 2015 global conference on cyberspace in The Hague ended up without any progress on the issue. The only international effort to prevent aggression in cyberspace was initiated by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2015.
The Russia-US cyber-security package of agreements in 2013 envisaged cooperation and information exchange between Russia and the US. The initiative has been stalled as a result of differences over Ukraine and other issues.
With no international agreements in place, a cyber-war can spiral out of control with hostilities spilling over to other domains. This is the area where it would be logical for Russia and the US to cooperate after Donald Trump takes office. Meanwhile, Moscow has done its best to prevent the escalation of diplomatic war hoping wisdom and patience are better advisers than anger, frustration and the desire for vengeance without making sure who has done the wrong thing.