Biden tells Russia 'now is the time to de-escalate' after sanctions

Sanctions come in response to Moscow's meddling in US elections, cyber attacks

US President Joe Biden called on Russia on Thursday to de-escalate the current situation, saying that his administration would take further action if Moscow continues its behaviour.

"Now is the time to de-escalate," Mr Biden said from the White House on Thursday following the imposition of a series of US sanctions on Moscow.

He gave warning, however, that “if Russia continues to interfere with our democracy, I'm prepared to take further actions to respond".

“We cannot allow a foreign power to interfere in our democratic process with impunity.”

Mr Biden said that in his call with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, he urged him to refrain from any military action inside Ukraine.

“I expressed concern about Russia's military buildup on Ukraine's border and I strongly urged him to refrain from any military action.”

The US on Thursday issued its harshest sanctions to date on Russia, targeting over 30 people and entities for alleged election interference and the occupation of Crimea.

In an executive order, Mr Biden ordered a widening of restrictions on US banks trading in Russian government debt, expelled 10 diplomats, who include alleged spies, and sanctioned 32 people alleged to have tried to meddle in the 2020 presidential election, the White House said.

It listed 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".

Mr Biden's executive 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 destabilising international action," the White House said.

The sanctions, announced by the Treasury Department and the White House, were placed on people and entities “who attempted to influence the 2020 US presidential election at the direction of the leadership of the Russian government".

Those include disinformation outlets and Russian nationals.

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

"These actions are intended to hold Russia to account for its reckless actions," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. "We will act firmly in response to Russian actions that cause harm to us or our allies and partners."

"Where possible, the United States will also seek opportunities for co-operation with Russia with the goal of building a more stable and predictable relationship consistent with US interests."

A senior administration said Mr Biden had warned Russian Mr Putin about the sanctions announced on Thursday during a phone call earlier this week.

The official said Mr Biden had also invited Mr Putin to meet in a European country to discuss issues in the increasingly acrimonious relationship between the two countries.

But the Kremlin said that Mr Biden's sanctions would decrease the likelihood of any such meeting, Reuters reported.

“We condemn any intentions to impose sanctions, consider them illegal, and in any case the principle of reciprocity operates in this area,” Reuters quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying. “Reciprocity so that our own interests are ensured in the best possible way.”

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

The senior administration official noted that the US intelligence community assesses with "high confidence" that Russia was behind the SolarWinds hack, an upgrade from the Trump administration's assessment last year that the attack was "likely of Russian origin".

The White House also called out Russia's extraterritorial "targeting" of dissidents and journalists and undermining of security in countries important to US national security. The Biden administration said it is privately responding to Russia reportedly placing bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan.

“The administration is responding to the reports that Russia encouraged Taliban attacks against US and coalition personnel in Afghanistan based on the best assessments from the Intelligence community,” the White House said.

"Given the sensitivity of this matter, which involves the safety and well-being of our forces, it is being handled through diplomatic, military and intelligence channels.”

The senior administration official said the US intelligence community assesses "with low to moderate confidence" that Russia was offering the bounties on US troops, citing the fact that most of the intelligence came from detainees as well as the challenging operating environment in Afghanistan.

“There will be elements or specific responses to these actions that will remain unseen," the senior administration official told reporters. "Our actions today constitute our public response which we intend to be understood as resolute but proportionate.”

The official also noted that Mr Biden's executive order gives the US government additional authority to penalise Russia beyond Thursday's sanctions.

"We would prefer not to have to deploy these authorities, but the scope of the [executive order] and its potential to cause meaningful impact should send a clear signal that continued harmful foreign activities, including further election interference, further malicious cyber activities are unacceptable," said the senior administration official.

"And we are prepared going forward to impose substantial and lasting costs if this behaviour escalates.”

Russia's first reaction to the sanctions was to summon the US ambassador to Moscow, John Sullivan, to the Russian Foreign Ministry, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Thursday.
"Right now, the US ambassador to Russia is at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of our country. I wouldn't have said this before, but now I can say this: this won't be a pleasant meeting for him," Ms Zakharova said.

Timothy Frye, a professor of post-Soviet politics at Columbia University, saw the new US measures as escalatory without necessarily being crippling.

"The sanctions are not a crippling blow to Russia's economy because they target the primary sales of government bonds, not the secondary market, and do not target large Russian corporations, but they are the next logical step up on the ladder of escalation with room for further sanctions in the future," Mr Frye, author of Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia, told The National.

“They will likely annoy rather than enrage the Kremlin.”

Asked if Thursday's actions would act as a deterrence in halting any Russian military escalation in Ukraine, the expert saw the purpose as more laser-focused on the economic sector.

“They are not primarily directed to deter any Russian moves in eastern Ukraine, but they signal that the Biden administration is taking a very different approach to Russia than its predecessor [Donald Trump],” Mr Frye noted.

“The size and macroeconomic stability of the Russian economy makes it difficult to use economic sanctions to influence military activities,” he said.

AFP contributed to this report.

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