Today’s US sanctions against Russia – including the expulsion of 35 diplomats and the closure of two Russian intelligence gathering sites in Maryland and New York – are much stiffer than expected. Taken in response to the alleged Kremlin-ordered hacking of the recent presidential election here, they underline how relations between the two former superpowers are now at their worst since the early 1980s, during the last spasm of the Cold War.
Although Russia, which has denied the charges, is likely to respond in kind, the repercussions of the incident could be fairly short lived, given that the new administration of Donald Trump, who has poured scorn on the hacking claims and vowed to improve ties with Moscow, is just 22 days away.
Nonetheless, they will surely greatly complicate life for the president-elect. Not only do President Obama and the Democrats, the victims of the hacking, believe such measures are overdue. So do senior Congressional figures of Trump’s Republican Party, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and several Senators, led by Arizona’s John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Even before today’s announcement, pressure has been building on Capitol Hill for a special committee, akin to the 1973 Watergate committee, to examine the matter further.
At the very least, the dramatic expulsions – and the certainty of tit-for-tat measures by Moscow – ensure the future of US-Russian relations will be front and centre of the confirmation hearings next month of Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, who as head of ExxonMobil had close ties with the Kremlin, and of Congressman Mike Pompeo, named to take over the CIA.
Measured by numbers alone, the expulsions appear to be the largest such exercise since 2001, when Washington ordered out 50 Russian personnel after the capture of Robert Hanssen, the FBI counter intelligence agent who had spied for the Soviet Union and then Russia for more than 20 years.
US officials moreover believe the election hacking, most notably of the Democratic National Committee and the personal email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, was but the culmination of a long campaign of disruption.
According to the country’s intelligence community, such interference is “decade-long.” Mounted by hacking groups believed to be linked to the FSB, successor to the KGB, and to Russian military intelligence, it has involved methods such as “spear phishing”, and campaigns targeting government organizations, critical infrastructure, think tanks, universities, political organisations, and corporations,” the US intelligence agencies believe.
In addition, the CIA and FBI are now reportedly convinced that the hacking – and and the leaks published by Wikileaks – were not merely aimed at generally disrupting the US electoral process, but specifically at damaging Ms Clinton, and helping the more sympathetic Trump win. Whether the meddling made a tangible difference however is hotly disputed, above all by Trump, who has branded the charges “ridiculous.” Only this week he called for Americans to “get on with our lives” rather than pick a sanctions fight with Moscow.