US imposes sanctions on Moscow, expels Russian diplomats

President Joe Biden's broadside against Russia came the same week as he offered to meet President Vladimir Putin for their first summit -- a meeting US officials say remains "vital" so that the two countries can deescalate.

A combination of photos of US President Joe Biden on 15 March 2021 and Russian President Vladimir Putin on 6 March 2020. Picture: Eric Baradat, Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Sputnik

WASHINGTON, United States - The United States announced sanctions and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats on Thursday in retaliation for what Washington says is the Kremlin's US election interference, a massive cyber attack and other hostile activity.

President Joe Biden's broadside against Russia came the same week as he offered to meet President Vladimir Putin for their first summit -- a meeting US officials say remains "vital" so that the two countries can deescalate.

In an executive order, Biden widened restrictions on US banks trading in Russian government debt, expelled 10 diplomats who include alleged spies, and sanctioned 32 individuals accused of meddling in the 2020 presidential election.

Biden's order "sends a signal that the United States will impose costs in a strategic and economically impactful manner on Russia if it continues or escalates its destabilizing international action," the White House said in a statement.

The Kremlin said on Thursday that sanctions would not "help" momentum for a summit and once the White House unveiled its measures, the Russian foreign ministry warned a Russian response was "inevitable."

The latest tension comes against a backdrop of longterm anger in Washington at Russian election meddling and worries both in the United States and its European allies over Russia's recent troop build up on the border of Ukraine.

The almost fatal poisoning and ongoing imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, who is effectively the last open political opponent to Putin, has further spiked concerns in the West.

A senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters that Washington was ready to impose more measures if necessary and also that additional actions are already in place but "will remain unseen."

Despite this, the official stressed that Washington is seeking deescalation and wants the proposed Biden-Putin summit to go ahead.

"We do not desire a downward spiral," the official said. "In the coming months it will be vital for the two leaders to sit down to discuss the full range of issues facing our relationship."

After Donald Trump's mixed signals to Russia -- and accusations that the Republican even seemed intent on shielding Putin from criticism -- the Democratic chair of the Senate foreign relations committee cheered Biden's approach.

"The Biden administration’s tough approach towards the Kremlin is a welcome departure from four years of Donald Trump’s pandering to Putin," Senator Bob Menedez aid.

"It is reassuring and frankly a relief to have president willing to clearly call Putin what he is -- a killer, a military aggressor in Ukraine, a source of malign influence, a cyber threat."

Biden was scheduled to deliver remarks on his Russia policy at 4:30 pm (2030 GMT), the White House said.

ALLIES BACK UP US

The sanctions are designed to hurt Russia's economy by making it harder to raise money on international markets. Starting June 14, US banks will be barred from buying government bonds directly from the Russian central bank, the finance ministry or sovereign wealth fund.

The White House statement explaining its actions listed in first place Moscow's "efforts to undermine the conduct of free and fair democratic elections and democratic institutions in the United States and its allies and partners."

This referred to allegations that Russian intelligence agencies mounted persistent disinformation and dirty tricks campaigns during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, in part to help Trump's candidacies.

The White House said the sanctions likewise respond to "malicious cyber activities against the United States and its allies and partners," referring to the massive so-called SolarWinds hack of US government computer systems last year.

For the first time, the US government named the Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR, as the organizer of the attack. In a response, the SVR called the accusation "nonsense" and "of little interest."

The White House statement also called out Russia's "targeting" of dissidents and journalists on foreign soil and undermining of security in countries important to US national security.

In addition, the Department of Treasury, together with Australia, Britain and Canada, sanctioned eight individuals and entities associated with Russia's occupation of Crimea in Ukraine.

US allies responded with a carefully choreographed show of support.

In Brussels, the NATO military alliance said US allies "support and stand in solidarity with the United States, following its 15 April announcement of actions to respond to Russia's destabilizing activities."

NATO members cited a "sustained pattern" of Russian hostility.

"We call on Russia to cease immediately its destabilizing behavior, and to uphold its international obligations," they said.

The European Union issued a statement expressing "solidarity with the United States on the impact of malicious cyber activities, notably the SolarWinds cyber operation."

The US ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, said that at a "professional and respectful" meeting at the foreign ministry in Moscow he told officials of Washington's intention to hold the government "accountable for its adversarial actions."

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