This story was updated throughout at 8:30 a.m. ET, Friday, Dec. 30, 2016
MOSCOW — In the closing days of the old year, the United States and Russia are slapping each other in the face in the second big spy crisis of the fast-ending era of Obama, but it’s a confrontation full of feints and surprises.
Back in 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested a ring of alleged Russian “sleepers,” including red-haired Russian “Bond Girl” Anna Chapman, who quickly became a celebrity ex-spy. In the end, not much harm was done.
But on Thursday, President Barack Obama ordered a much more significant action against what was portrayed as a much more sinister plot. In retaliation for the alleged hacking of the Democratic Party in an effort to tilt the U.S. presidential elections to Donald Trump, 35 Russians were declared “persona non grata,” two Russian intelligence agencies were sanctioned, and a list of hackers was published. Residences in the United States where Russian officials and their children spent time relaxing (among other things) found themselves shut down.
The news arrived late in the evening on Thursday in Moscow, where it was not entirely unexpected, and the Kremlin immediately promised “a mirror response.” But then came the surprises.
On Friday morning, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the American accusations “have no grounds” and Russia would kick out 31 diplomats serving at the U.S. embassy as well as four more stationed in St. Petersburg. “They declared our dachas in Washington and with the UN mission ‘nests of spies.’ We suggest banning Americans for use of their dacha in Serebrenny Bor and their storage facility in Dorozhnaya Street.” All that seemed predictable enough.
Russia’s former president and current prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, who received Obama in Moscow in 2009, the time of the “re-set” in U.S.-Russia relations, buried all hopes of improved ties with these guys. “It is sad that the Obama administration that began its life by reconstructing ties ends it with anti-Russian death throes,” Medvedev tweeted. “RIP.”
Russian officials had prepared the country for the worst, even before Obama announced the sanctions and expulsion.
On Thursday, President Vladimir Putin’s internet adviser, German Klimenko, warned Russians that their country could get “entirely unplugged from the world’s internet.” Earlier this week, the Russian Ministry of Communications worked on a draft of a new law “designed as a protective measure” for the most important state institutions.
The effect of such measures could well play into authoritarian hands, as independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin tells The Daily Beast: “Putin’s first move is to isolate Russia, separate people from the world with a USSR-style Iron Curtain, except that this time the curtain is designed against the freedom of internet information,” Oreshkin said. “In Soviet times, Russians were also told that there, on the other side of the curtain, the world is full of miserable liars.”
On Friday morning, Russia’s major television station, Channel One, featured footage of children of Russian diplomats having fun last summer in the U.S. summer camps that were now doomed, thanks to Obama. So the first of Moscow’s “mirror” responses hit children of Western diplomats. Russian news agencies reported that authorities closed the Anglo-American school in Moscow. The school taught hundreds of Western children, including the kids of the U.S., British and Canadian diplomats. The reports also said that the Kremlin closed down a U.S. embassy “resort” in Moscow.
And then... and then... judo blackbelt Putin pulled one of the most spectacular jiujitsu moves of his political career, announcing that Russia would not be punishing any American children or closing any American dachas. In a move that echoed Michelle Obama’s incantatory “they go low, we go high,” Putin announced: “We will not create problems for U.S. diplomats. We will not expel anyone. We will not prohibit their families and children to use their usual vacation spots in the New Year’s holidays. Moreover, I am inviting all children of the U.S. diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year’s and Christmas celebration in the Kremlin.”
“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.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin dismissed all the accusations described in the 13-page document with the colorful title “Grizzly Steppe: Russian Malicious Cyber Activity” (PDF), presented to Obama jointly by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and FBI.
The U.S. report detailed activities by the Russian intelligence services, mainly the FSB (formerly KGB) and GRU (military intelligence) collectively labeled RIS. It blamed the Russian government for sponsoring computer hacking attacks on the Democratic Party during the 2016 election campaign using cutouts labeled Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) 29 and APT 28, which have also been called Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, respectively.
But almost all of this information has been on the public record for months, much of published by private security firms. A previous joint statement by FBI and DHS in early October (PDF) stated flatly that the U.S. intelligence community “is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.”
“These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process,” the American services stated—and remember, this was back in October.
But the case as presented was highly circumstantial, described as “consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.
“Such activity is not new to Moscow—the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there,” the October statement continued. “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
The joint DHS/FBI statement issued Thursday describes some techniques and details, but gets no closer to the proverbial smoking keyboard.
The Daily Beast spoke with a number of IT specialists in Russia who admitted that the hacker business was becoming profitable for thousands of young specialists on the “black Internet market.” Young IT students and programmers also are offered jobs in state “cybersecurity” companies. “These sanctions against FSB and GRU are a joke,” one of IT specialists working for the state told The Daily Beast on background. “These cyber forces are non-official; it is the same as imposing sanctions against ghost.”
Official Russian officials, for their part, did not want to hear about any evidence linking Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear hackers to the FSB or GRU. Obama’s new anti-Russian steps three weeks before Trump takes over at the White House were nothing but “a dead one grabbing and forcing his will on the alive one,” Aleksei Pushkov, a deputy of Federation Council, said on Twitter. The Kremlin insisted that the new punishment was just going to cause trouble for President-Elect Donald Trump, that the investigation against Russia is biased, political, and based on thin evidence.
Hours after Washington imposed the sanctions on Russia’s secret-service agencies and announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the United States, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russian Foreign Ministry, referred to President Obama’s administration as “losers in foreign policy, evil and ignorant.” Zakharova also said that by creating a diplomatic scandal with the Russia president, Obama “humiliated” the American people and added to the list of problems for Donald Trump to solve.
The conflict with Washington developed in the midst of a very important process—the Kremlin is sharing control and brokering peace deals with Turkey and Iran in Syria, where as many as 400,000 people have been killed in the civil war since 2011. On Thursday, the presidents of Turkey and Russia announced that the truce they had brokered without any participation by Washington was holding. International observers confirmed that it was calm in Syria on Thursday night, although there were some reports of fighting near Damascus on Friday.
The operation in Syria was a gesture that the Kremlin was planning to stage for President Obama, as a memorable goodbye.
Last month, Sergei Markov, an adviser to the Kremlin, told The Daily Beast: “Moscow is planning to take over eastern Aleppo during the period between the U.S. elections and the new president’s inauguration in a symbolical gesture to slap Obama in the face.”
Images of the Russian bear roaring at the American eagle illustrated articles about the new Cold War tensions in Russian media; Moscow insisted that, by putting pressure on Russia, Obama has inspired the new Cold War. There is no suggestion that Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine might have had something to do with this; no hint that Russia might indeed be playing a dangerous game of its own.
So this new Cold War continues to heat up, steadily undermining not only American democracy but such political openings as remain in Russia.
“Most probably the Kremlin is going to expel dozens of the U.S. diplomats,” Oreshkin told The Daily Beast before that announcement was official, then retracted. But of course that's not the end of the game: “It will put more pressure on ‘foreign agents,’ NGOs like Memorial and Levada Center and on the U.S. representative offices,” said Oreshkin, and that suits the Kremlin's purposes just fine.
—with additional reporting by Christopher Dickey in Paris