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Biden says latest sanctions not intended to escalate tensions with Russia

President Joe Biden signs executive orders, Jan. 28, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. President Joe Biden says the United States wants a stable, predictable relationship with Russian and is not looking to “kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict” through wide-ranging sanctions on Russia.

Speaking at the White House on April 15 after the White House announced the sanctions, Biden also warned that if Russia “continues to interfere with our democracy, I am prepared to take further actions to respond.”

Biden said when he spoke with President Vladimir Putin he warned him that that United States would respond to election interference and the SolarWinds cyberattack “in a measured and proportional way.”

He said the United States “could have gone further” in its retaliation, but he chose not to because he wants to avoid an escalation.

Earlier in the day, Biden announced the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats and sanctions against dozens other Russian individuals and entities as it moved to hold the Kremlin accountable for election interference and the SolarWinds cyberattack.

The salvo of measures “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 actions,” the White House said.

In a potential blow to the Russian economy, the U.S. Treasury also placed additional limits on the Russian sovereign-debt market in a step that is sure to spook investors.

The sanctions, which Moscow swiftly denounced while warning of retaliation, come amid rising tensions between the West and Russia over a buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine and the imprisonment of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny after he was poisoned with a nerve-agent last year.

But Biden said there are areas in which the United States and Russia “can and should work together.” He cited the decision shortly after he took office to extend the New START treaty “and maintain that key element of nuclear stability between our nations.”

He said in his calls with Putin since taking office he expressed his belief that communication between him and Putin personally and directly “was to be essential in moving forward on a more effective relationship and [Putin] agreed on that point.”

The summit Biden proposed to take place this summer in Europe could launch a strategic stability dialog to pursue cooperation in arms control and security, he said.

“We can address critical global challenges that require Russia and the United States to work together, including reigning in nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, ending this pandemic globally, and meeting the existential crisis of climate change,” he said.

Biden also noted U.S. “unwavering” support for allies and partners in Europe and concern about Russia’s buildup on Ukraine’s border and in occupied Crimea.

“Now is the time to de-escalate. The way forward is through thoughtful dialog and diplomatic process. The U.S. is prepared to continue constructively to move forward with that process,” he said.

In a separate statement acknowledging the sanctions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also voiced concern over Navalny’s fate.

“We remain concerned about Navalny’s health and treatment in prison, and call for his unconditional release,” the statement said.

In targeting the Russian sovereign-debt market, Biden’s executive order prohibits U.S. financial institutions from participating in the primary market for ruble or non-ruble denominated bonds issued after June 14. The United States already bans American investors from buying newly issued Russian government foreign-currency debt.

“Judging from history, removing U.S. investors as buyers in this market can create a broader chilling effect that raises Russia’s borrowing costs, along with capital flight and a weaker currency. And all of these forces have a material impact on Russia’s growth and inflation outcomes,” a senior Biden administration official said.

Hacking Allegations

U.S. intelligence officials have previously pointed the finger at Russia for a massive hack known as SolarWinds that hit large swaths of the U.S. public and private sectors last year, including at least nine U.S. federal agencies. Russia has denied the accusations.

In the latest measures, the United States named those behind the SolarWinds hack.

“Today the United States is formally naming the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), also known as APT 29, Cozy Bear, and The Dukes, as the perpetrator of the broad-scope cyber-espionage campaign that exploited the SolarWinds Orion platform and other information technology infrastructures,” the White House said.

“The U.S. Intelligence Community has high confidence in its assessment of attribution to the SVR.”

The 10 diplomats being expelled include representatives of Russian intelligence services, the White House said.

Besides that hack, U.S. officials last month said that Putin authorized interference and disinformation campaigns to help former U.S. President Donald Trump in his unsuccessful bid for reelection as president.

The latest sanctions include six Russian companies that support the country’s cyber activities, in addition to sanctions on 32 individuals and entities accused of attempting to spread disinformation and interfere in last year’s presidential election. Russian election interference did not impact U.S. election systems or vote tallying.

The statement also said that Washington was using diplomatic, military, and intelligence channels to respond to reports that Russia encouraged the Taliban to attack U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan based on the “best assessments” of the intelligence community.

The White House did not publicly confirm the reports, but said that “the safety and well-being of U.S. military personnel, and that of our allies and partners, is an absolute priority of the United States.”

NATO and the European Union both expressed solidarity with the U.S. move.

“NATO Allies support and stand in solidarity with the United States, following its 15 April announcement of actions to respond to Russia’s destabilizing activities,” the statement said.

“The European Union and its Member States express their solidarity with the United States on the impact of malicious cyber activities, notably the SolarWinds cyber operation, which, the United States assesses, has been conducted by the Russian Federation,” the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.

“The compromise affected governments and businesses worldwide, including in EU Member States,” the statement added.

In reaction to the announced sanctions, U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry, which said that “a response to the sanctions is inevitable.”

Just before the sanctions were announced, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the TASS news agency that any sanctions would be considered “illegal.”