The Treasury Department on Thursday announced that it would roll out sweeping new sanctions against Russia and Kremlin-aligned entities in response to Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, including an infamous online troll farm and 13 other Russians targeted separately by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
“The administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in announcing the new sanctions. “These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia.”
The announcement represented a notable change in course for the Trump administration, which was under fire from Capitol Hill to fully implement a sanctions regime that the Senate had approved by a vote of 98 to 2 and the House had passed by a margin of 419 to 3. And it suggests that the president’s team may very well be concluding that a deferential posture toward Moscow is politically untenable. The new sanctions come on the heels of the Pentagon’s massive new lethal weapons sale to Ukraine, where its military is fighting Russian-backed separatists.
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is designating five entities and 19 individuals for punishment under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the bipartisan measure that Congress passed overwhelmingly last year to, in part, sanction Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors. The administration had lagged in fully implementing it before the mandatory deadlines, drawing criticism from key lawmakers. Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill had pressed administration officials to impose the sanctions before the January 29, 2018 deadline, and Mnuchin told lawmakers in recent weeks that new CAATSA sanctions would be rolled out soon.
The new CAATSA designations include Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) intelligence agencies, which are believed to have hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s email servers in 2016. GRU-aligned individuals and top officials are also named in the new sanctions regime.
In a new executive order titled, “Blocking the Property of Certain Persons Engaging in Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities,” the administration also names the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based “troll farm” that Mueller included in his indictment last month. The Daily Beast first reported last year on the troll farm’s efforts to impersonate Americans on social media, exacerbating political divisions and spreading propaganda.
“The IRA created and managed a vast number of fake online personas that posed as legitimate U.S. persons to include grassroots organizations, interest groups, and a state political party on social media,” the Treasury Department said. “Through this activity, the IRA posted thousands of ads that reached millions of people online.”
The executive order also designates Yevgeny Prigozhin, the IRA’s top financier, and Concord Management and Consulting LLC, which “provided material assistance to the IRA,” in addition to the 12 other Russians named in Mueller’s Feb. 16 indictment.
On a conference call with reporters, administration officials on Thursday demurred when asked whether the president himself would directly address U.S. efforts to counter Russian election-meddling in particular, on which Trump has repeatedly cast doubt.
“I’m not in any way qualified” to predict the president’s public position, one official remarked, adding that such questions should be directed to the White House press office. But the fact that the Trump administration has now included these targets among its sanctions regime may complicate efforts to discredit the Mueller probe—an argument Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) made in a statement Thursday.
“The fact that the administration has issued sanctions against individuals and entities indicted by Special Counsel Mueller proves that his investigation is not a ‘witch hunt’ as the president and his allies have claimed,” Schumer said.
A senior administration official affirmatively stated that the Internet Research Agency “tampered with or altered information in order to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election,” while adding that Thursday’s actions were “just one of a series of ongoing actions we’re taking to target Russian aggression.”
In addition to the Treasury Department’s measures, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI plan to issue a “joint technical alert” about Russia’s cyber activities targeting U.S. government entities and other sectors including energy, nuclear, aviation, and critical manufacturing.
The Treasury Department’s press release also noted the recent nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom—an attack which the British government and its allies have blamed squarely on Russia—and the NotPetya cyberattack that affected European businesses last year.
“In addition to countering Russia’s malign cyber activity, Treasury continues to pressure Russia for its ongoing efforts to destabilize Ukraine, occupy Crimea, meddle in elections, as well as for its endemic corruption and human rights abuses,” the department wrote in its release. “The recent use of a military-grade nerve agent in an attempt to murder two U.K. citizens further demonstrates the reckless and irresponsible conduct of its government.”
Thursday’s announcement was welcome news to most on Capitol Hill, and lawmakers urged the Trump administration to keep its foot on the gas pedal.
“As our midterm elections approach, we must send a clear message that attacks on our political process will not be tolerated,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Today’s action, using authorities provided by Congress, are an important step by the administration. But more must be done.”
But Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Thursday’s announcement was “a grievous disappointment” that “fall[s] far short of what is needed to respond to that attack on our democracy.” He said the administration relied on Mueller’s indictment instead of demonstrating “new work” to “identify those responsible for interference in our electoral process.”
Mnuchin has told lawmakers to expect additional sanctions based on a report the department produced about Russian oligarchs and Kremlin-aligned individuals. The production of that report—a version of which is public while another is classified—was mandated under the CAATSA legislation, but the law does not specifically state that the administration must levy sanctions based on the report. The Treasury Department has not laid out a timetable for a possible announcement of additional punishments targeting the individuals named in the oligarchs report.
—Lachlan Markay contributed reporting.