The Trump administration is joining harsh international condemnation of Russia for a nerve agent attack in Britain blamed on Moscow, while for the first time imposing fresh sanctions — directly blaming Russia for election interference.
Asked by a reporter Thursday about the the poison attack targeting a former double agent in Salisbury, President Donald Trump replied, “It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it.”
He described the March 4 attempted assassination of the ex-spy as a “very sad situation.” He said the U.S. was taking the matter “very seriously, as I think are many others.”
Trump had appeared reluctant previously to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin or to take strong action against Russia.
The president has repeatedly declared there was no collusion between his election campaign and Russia and that U.S. investigations into such allegations are a “witch hunt.”
On Thursday, the U.S. government joined those of Britain, France and Germany in backing London’s conclusion holding Russia responsible for the nerve agent attack. The joint statement says “there is no plausible alternative explanation” and “Russia’s failure to address the legitimate request by the government of the United Kingdom further underlines Russia’s responsibility.”
The statement was issued shortly before Washington announced the blacklisting of five entities and 19 individuals for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other malicious cyberattacks, including on America’s energy grid.
Among those targeted by the U.S. Treasury Department sanctions are two Russian intelligence agencies, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), as well as 13 Russians already indicted by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation of Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
“It’s more of the pressure we need to put on Russia. We’ve got to figure out some way to curtail their malign activities, whether it’s cyber or otherwise,” Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, a member of the Armed Services and Judiciary committees, told VOA.
Action ‘way overdue’
A Democratic senator, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, agreed with Tillis and said Thursday’s action was “way overdue,” accusing Trump administration members of going out “of their way to ignore all the attacks that Russia has made on us. Our intelligence services have been very clear. They tried to alter our elections and there is no question they’ll try it again.”
Leahy also told VOA that the administration’s response remained unsatisfactory, “but even a little bit is better than nothing.”
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin defended the administration’s response.
In a statement, Mnuchin said the administration “is confronting and countering malign Russian cyberactivity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyberattacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure. These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia.”
The Treasury Department’s action blocks the 19 sanctioned individuals and five entities from doing any business in the U.S., while saying that Americans “are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.”
Russian cyberattacks on critical U.S. industrial and other infrastructure are “long term and still ongoing,” a national security official told reporters on Thursday.
Another national security official, also speaking on condition of not being identified, singled out the FSB, saying it was targeting U.S. government cybersecurity specialists, diplomats, military and other personnel.
Treasury’s statement blamed Russia for interference in the 2016 U.S. election and destructive cyberattacks, including the June 2017 NotPetya incident, which it characterized as “the most destructive and costly cyberattack in history.” The U.S. said that attack disrupted global shipping, trade and the production of medicines, and prevented the creation of electronic records at several U.S. hospitals for more than a week.
Trump’s choice to lead the National Security Agency, the lead U.S. electronic spy agency, also expressed concern about Russia’s cyberactivity during his confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Unless the calculus changes, we should expect continued issues,” said Army Lieutenant General Paul Nakasone, who has also been nominated to head the U.S. military’s Cyber Command.
VOA’s Michael Bowman on Capitol Hill and Jeff Seldin in Washington contributed to this report.