Obama hits Russia hard, expelling 35 diplomats in response to election hacking

As Obama tosses out diplomats, Trump says it’s time to ‘move on’ and Russia’s London embassy brands the move ‘Cold War deja vu’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 4:26am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 11:38pm

The Obama administration announced new measures on Thursday in retaliation for what US officials have characterised as Russian interference in American elections, ordering the removal of 35 Russian government officials from the United States and sanctioning agencies and individuals tied to the hacks.

The announcement comes several weeks after President Barack Obama promised to respond to Russian hacking in both public and covert actions,“at a time and place of our own choosing.”

The announcement culminates months of vigorous internal debate over whether and how to respond to Russia’s unprecedented election-year provocations, ranging from the hacks of the Democratic National Committee to the targeting of state electoral systems.

Watch: US expels 35 Russian diplomats

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US president-elect Donald Trump meanwhile responded to Obama’s decision to hit Russia hard by insisting it is “time for our country to move on to bigger and better things”.

But he said he would meet with US intelligence officials next week “in order to be updated on the facts of this situation”.

The Russian embassy in London meanwhile fired off a snide response, tweeting that “everybody,” including Americans, will be glad to see the end of his “hapless” administration.

The tweet was accompanied by a picture of a duck overlaid with text reading, “LAME.” It characterised the diplomats’ expulsion as a “Cold War deja vu.”

US officials believe that a military spy agency in Russia hacked into the Democratic National Committee and stole emails later released by WikiLeaks. Emails hacked from the account of John Podesta, who chaired Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, were also made public, and state electoral systems were also targeted. The cyber-intervention was aimed primarily at Democrats.

Prior to the announcement, administration officials had been discussing how to adapt a 2015 executive order allowing the president to respond to foreign cyberattacks. Because the order was intended primarily for attacks against infrastructure or commercial targets, officials have been scrambling to ensure the order can be used to punish Russia for the election hacks.

Russia has denied involvement in attacks related to the election and promised to retaliate against any new sanctions.

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President-elect Donald Trump has already suggested that the United States should drop its effort to retaliate against Russia, telling reporters this week that “we ought to get on with our lives.” Trump has also cast doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia was behind the hacks.

U.S. officials have also considered criminal indictments of Russian officials, but the FBI appears to have been unable so far to compile sufficient evidence to take that step.

Obama sanctioned two Russian intelligence services, the GRU and the FSB, plus companies which the US says support the GRU. The cybersecurity firm hired by the Democratic National Committee to investigate theft of its emails determined earlier this year the hacking came from the Fancy Bear group, believed to be affiliated with the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency. The FSB is the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

The president also sanctioned GRU chief Igor Korobov and three of his deputies.

Separately, the Treasury Department sanctioned Alexsey Belan and Yevgeny Bogachev, two Russian nationals who have been wanted by the FBI for cybercrimes for years.

The 35 Russian diplomats, who Obama said were intelligence operatives, were declared “persona non grata” and given 72 hours to leave the country.

The United States wants to “definitively destroy US-Russia relations which have already reached a low” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, adding that Russia will “react in an adequate manner based on the principles of reciprocity.”

“We categorically reject the unfounded assertions and accusations made about Russia,” Peskov said, according to the Ria-Novosti news agency.

“The American sanctions against Russia and the expulsion of 35 diplomats in 72 hours are proof of a real paranoia,” said Leonid Slutsky, the Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs.

“They are once again taking very aggressive measures against our country,” he said, according to Ria-Novosti.

Additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse