Nobody should fall for this KGB veteran’s act. After all, it was Putin who authorized the Russian hacking and interference in the U.S. election this year, in an unprecedented attack on America’s political and electoral system. Had Putin decided to expel 35 Americans, he would not have been retaliating – he would have been escalating the confrontation.
In July, after reports about the cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee’s computer system first appeared, I joined more than two dozen leading Republican figures in calling on appropriate congressional committees to launch an immediate investigation. “The foreign attack was an assault on the integrity of the entire American political process,” we argued then. “Those responsible for this gross interference in our political process, and those who might contemplate similar moves in the future, need to understand that such actions will have consequences.”
Since then, the entire U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russian agencies sought to tip the election in favor of Trump, not simply discredit the U.S. electoral process. Russia’s brazen actions demanded a strong response.
Thursday’s announcement was a step, overdue but still welcome, in the right direction. In sanctioning a number of entities and individuals, the U.S. government went after those directly responsible, including Russia’s Military Intelligence Service (GRU) and the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB. As President Obama’s statement made clear, “The United States and friends and allies around the world must work together to oppose Russia’s efforts to undermine established international norms of behavior, and interfere with democratic governance.”
Moscow vs. the West
While Russian interference in the U.S. political process this year was a new development, Moscow has been intervening in other countries’ elections and politics for years. It launched a cyberattack against Estonia in 2007 and has messed with the infrastructure of neighboring states like Lithuania. Ukraine has been the victim of endless Russian cyberattacks on top of more traditional military assaults in its eastern Donbas region and the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The Kremlin’s propaganda outlets such as RT and Sputnik meddle in other countries’ politics. Almost a year ago, in an effort to stir up ethnic tensions in Germany, Russia’s most-watched television network, Channel One, fabricated a story that a 13-year-old German-Russian girl was gang-raped by a group of immigrants in Berlin. More broadly, German authorities have been warning about Russia’s growing role ahead of next fall’s elections there, while RT announced it was beefing up its French-language service to cover the upcoming elections in France.
The U.S. and Europe must work more closely together in pushing back against Russia’s aggression, including by exploring the idea of expelling RT and Sputnik employees — who are not real journalists, let’s be blunt — from our countries. After all, the role of these outlets is not to engage in true journalism but to blur the distinction between fact and fiction and exploit the openness of Western societies. More European countries should also adopt the Magnitsky legislation — Estonia this month is the only country on the Continent that has done what the U.S. did in 2012 — that sanctions Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses. The way the Putin regime treats its own people, to be clear, is similar to the way it behaves in foreign policy.
More can and should be done in the U.S., too. For example, it is unclear why the Obama administration targeted, rightly, the head of the GRU, Igor Korobov, but left off its sanctions list the head of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov. The FSB has played a major role in destabilizing neighboring Ukraine, and Bortnikov already should have been sanctioned under actions taken in connection with that situation. Instead he was allowed to attend the “Countering Violent Extremism” conference in Washington in April 2015.
U.S. authorities should also engage in a little retaliatory hacking of their own by going after the bank accounts of top Russian officials; Europeans can help in this effort. Lopping off a few zeroes from the Russians’ ill-gotten gains would send a strong, targeted message. It is unlikely these officials will publicly protest that they are out millions, even billions of dollars, since they would have trouble explaining how they acquired such fortunes in the first place.
Congress has a very important role to play as well. It plans to hold hearings to determine how the hacking was done, who was responsible, and what should be done to prevent any repeat. Such hearings should avoid partisan gamesmanship and focus on how this was an attack on our country, regardless of party differences. Congress should also look to codify the sanctions put in place by the Obama administration and add to them. They should do the same when it comes to sanctions imposed on Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea and ongoing aggression against Ukraine. And they should pass legislation imposing sanctions for Russia’s brutal actions against civilians and others in Syria, which some have described as war crimes.
Such moves by Congress would complicate any plans the incoming Trump administration may have to undo the measures adopted by the outgoing administration. The sanctions announced on Thursday, like the sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014-15 related to its invasion of Ukraine, have all been done under executive authority, meaning that Trump could undo them, albeit with some difficulty, with the stroke of a pen. If the sanctions were codified into law, they would be almost impossible for Trump to ignore or dismiss.
Some Republican Members of Congress have criticized Obama’s measures as too little, too late. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, described the sanctions as “a good initial step, however late in coming.” Maybe so, but that is a better response than saying “we ought to get on with our lives,” as President-elect Trump argued this week. The reaction among leading Republican Senators suggests Trump will face resistance to any efforts to lift sanctions on the Putin regime. His nominee for secretary of state, former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, has publicly criticized the Ukraine-related sanctions; he should be asked whether as secretary he would recommend lifting those and the most recent sanctions related to the cyberattack on our election. Tillerson’s answer to that question should be a key factor in the Senate vote on his confirmation.
We simply cannot let Russia’s egregious actions go unchallenged. We need to come together as a united country — and together with Europe — to push back firmly against hostile, foreign interference in our political and electoral systems.
Author: David J. Kramer