The Kremlin is threatening the Biden administration with severe repercussions over a new U.S. sanctions package, bringing the troubled U.S.-Russian relationship to an unprecedented low.
The Biden administration imposed a robust sanctions package this week targeting the Russian economy. The measures included sanctions on all debt Russia issues after June 14, preventing U.S. financial institutions from buying government bonds from the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, the National Wealth Fund of the Russian Federation, or the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation. The directive “provides authority for the U.S. government to expand sovereign debt sanctions on Russia as appropriate,” laying the groundwork for further sovereign debt sanctions against Russia in the future. The package also contained sanctions against six Russian companies thought to be associated with Russian cyberhacking operations. Finally, ten officials at the Russian embassy in the United States, all identified as intelligence officers, will be expelled.
President Biden, who held a phone call with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin earlier this week, offered brief clarifying remarks on Thursday. “We can not allow a foreign power to interfere in our democratic process with impunity,” he said. “And I told them [the Kremlin] if it turned out as I thought that there was engagement in our elections that I’d respond. Later during the transition as we learn more about the SolarWinds cyber intrusion, I made clear that I respond once we determined who had in fact conducted a hack on the scope and scale that occurred.”
“When we spoke again this week, I told them that we would shortly be responding in a measured and a proportionate way because we concluded that they had interfered in the election and SolarWinds…,” Biden said. “Today I’ve approved several steps, including expulsion of several Russian officials as a consequence of their actions. I’ve also signed an executive order authorizing new measures, including sanctions to address specific harmful actions that Russia has taken against U.S. interest.”
Nevertheless, Biden reaffirmed that he hopes “Russia and the United States work together” to address “critical global challenges” including Iran, North Korea, the coronavirus pandemic, and climate change.
The President did not cite the old, unverified allegation that Russian intelligence offered Afghan militants bounties for slain U.S. soldiers as one of the reasons behind the new sanctions. A major Biden talking point in past months, the Afghan bounties story has been dealt a credibility blow by a recent U.S. intelligence community review that found “low to moderate confidence” in the claim that Russian intelligence officers sought to “encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel, including through financial incentives and compensation.” Nor did Biden take the opportunity to bring up the imprisonment of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny, which his administration previously framed as a core issue in the U.S.-Russia relationship.
Despite Biden’s apparent attempt to qualify the scope and nature of the punishments so as to make them more politically palatable for Russia, these measures were met with an overwhelmingly hostile reaction in Moscow. The Kremlin, which warned repeatedly in recent months that it will not tolerate further sanctions from the West, vowed an imminent response. On the following day, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced the tit-for-tat expulsion of ten U.S. diplomats: “Ten diplomats were on a list the U.S. side handed over to us asking to ensure their leaving the United States. We will give a tit-for-tat response to that. We will also ask ten U.S. diplomats to leave our country,” he said.
But this was only the cusp of what became a flurry of Russian retaliatory measures on Friday. Lavrov announced that Putin’s aide Yuri Ushakov strongly suggested that U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan should go back to Washington “for thorough, serious consultations.” Russia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov was recalled to Moscow, where he currently remains, in late March. The Kremlin blacklisted eight U.S. officials, including Susan Rice, James Woolsey, John Bolton, and Christopher Wray. Moscow likewise announced measures to stop the hiring of Russian citizens to work in U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia. “We do not have such a practice, so we are introducing parity to this issue,” noted Lavrov. Lavrov further stated that the Kremlin is contemplating long-term economic countermeasures: “We also have opportunities to implement painful measures against American businesses, we will keep these in reserve.” According to Lavrov, these measures could include restrictions on American funds and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) operating in Russia.
The catastrophic diplomatic fallout from this latest round of sanctions shows the dangers and pitfalls as President Biden attempts to formulate his Russia policy. Russia sees that policy as built on the dangerous, strategically shallow notion that Washington can punish Moscow when and where it wants to whilst expecting Russian cooperation whenever it benefits U.S. interests. There were clear signs, going as far back as January, that a simplistic “carrot and stick” strategy was only going to breed further escalation while damaging prospects for meaningful dialogue on such pressing security issues as the Donbass War. With the relationship at a historic nadir, the ball is back in the court of the Biden administration on whether or not it will adopt a more realistic policy framework for managing Russian-U.S. competition into the coming years.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for The National Interest.