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US expels Russian diplomats and imposes new round of sanctions

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci).
Eric Tucker and Aamer Madhani, Associated Press

The Biden administration has announced the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats and sanctions against nearly three dozen people and companies as it moved to hold the Kremlin accountable for interference in last year’s presidential election and the hacking of federal agencies.

The actions, foreshadowed for weeks by the administration, represent the first retaliatory measures announced against the Kremlin for the hack, familiarly known as the SolarWinds breach.

In that intrusion, Russian hackers are believed to have infected widely used software with malicious code, enabling them to access the networks of at least nine agencies in what US officials believe was an intelligence-gathering operation aimed at mining government secrets.

Besides that hack, US officials last month alleged that Russian President Vladimir Putin authorised influence operations to help Donald Trump in his unsuccessful bid for reelection as president, though there is no evidence Russia or anyone else changed votes or manipulated the outcome.

The measures announced on Thursday include sanctions on six Russian companies that support the country’s cyber activities, in addition to sanctions on 32 individuals and entities accused of attempting to interfere in last year’s presidential election, including by spreading disinformation.

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

The White House also said Mr Biden was using diplomatic, military and intelligence channels to respond to reports that Russia encouraged the Taliban to attack US and allied troops in Afghanistan based on the “best assessments” of the intelligence community.

Reports of alleged “bounties” surfaced last year, with the Trump administration coming under fire for not raising the issue directly with Russia.

The White House did not publicly confirm the reports.

“The safety and wellbeing of US military personnel, and that of our allies and partners, is an absolute priority of the United States,” the White House said on Thursday.

It was not immediately clear what, if any, other actions might be planned against Russia.

Officials had previously said they expected to take actions both seen and unseen.

The sanctions, presumably intended to send a clear retributive message to Russia and to deter similar acts in the future, are certain to exacerbate an already tense relationship between the US and Russia.

President Joe Biden told Mr Putin this week in their second call to “de-escalate tensions” following a Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s border, and said the US would “act firmly in defence of its national interests” regarding Russian intrusions and election interference.

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