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By Steve Holland, Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday took its most notable action against Russia since Donald Trump became president, slapping sanctions on a group of Russian individuals and entities, including Moscow’s intelligence services, for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and malicious cyber-attacks.
Under pressure to act, the administration still deferred making a move targeting Russian government officials and oligarchs, those closest to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Thursday’s announcement marked the first time that the U.S. government stated publicly that Russia had attempted to break into the American energy grid, which U.S. security officials have long warned may be vulnerable to debilitating cyber-attacks from hostile adversaries.
Trump has faced fierce criticism in the United States for doing too little to punish Russia for the election meddling and other actions, and a special counsel is looking into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians, an allegation the president denies.
Combined with the United States joining Britain in blaming Moscow for poisoning a former Russian spy in southern England, the actions represented another plunge in U.S.-Russian relations despite Trump’s stated desire for improved ties.
“The administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in announcing the new sanctions.
Trump has frequently questioned a January 2017 finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 campaign using hacking and propaganda in an effort eventually aimed at tilting the race in Trump’s favour. Russia denies interfering in the election.
But Mnuchin was unequivocal in saying that Thursday’s Treasury action “counters Russia’s continuing destabilising activities, ranging from interference in the 2016 election to conducting destructive cyber-attacks.”
A senior administration official told Reuters that Trump, who campaigned on warmer ties with Putin, has grown exasperated with Russian activity.
The Treasury Department aimed the sanctions at 19 Russian individuals and five groups. Sixteen of the Russian individuals and entities sanctioned were indicted on Feb. 16 as part of Mueller’s criminal investigation. While Trump has frequently called the Russia probe a “witch hunt,” the new sanctions appear to affirm Mueller’s investigative strategy.
Trump told reporters during a White House event with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar that “it certainly looks like the Russians were behind” the use of a nerve agent to attack Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent in England. Trump called it “something that should never, ever happen, and we’re taking it very seriously, as I think are many others.”
Russian government hackers since at least March 2016 “have also targeted U.S. government entities and multiple U.S. critical infrastructure sectors, including the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors,” a Treasury Department statement said.
A senior administration told reporters on a conference call that Russian actors infiltrated parts of the U.S. energy sector.
“We were able to identify where they were located within those business systems and remove them from those business systems,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Mnuchin said there would be additional sanctions against Russian government officials and oligarchs “for their destabilising activities.” Mnuchin did not give a timeframe for those sanctions, which he said would sever the individuals’ access to the U.S. financial system.
The new sanctions also include Russian intelligence services, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), and six individuals working on behalf of the GRU.
Thursday’s action blocks all property of those targeted that is subject to U.S. jurisdiction and prohibits American citizens from engaging in transactions with them.
The Treasury Department said the sanctions were also meant to counter destructive cyber-attacks including the NotPetya attack that cost billions of dollars in damage across Europe, Asia and the United States. The United States and Britain last month attributed that attack to the Russian military.
Mueller’s indictment stated that Russians adopted false online personas to push divisive messages, travelled to the United States to collect intelligence and staged political rallies while posing as Americans.
Both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress, which nearly unanimously passed a new sanctions bill against Russia last summer, had criticized Trump for not punishing Moscow. The Trump administration in January did not announce sanctions against Russia, for now, under the new law.
Republican Ed Royce, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, welcomed the new sanctions as an important step. “But more must be done,” Royce said in a statement, promising that his committee would “keep pushing to counter Russian aggression.”
The Treasury Department said it would keep the pressure on Russia for its ongoing efforts to destabilise Ukraine and occupy the Crimea region, as well as corruption and human rights abuses.
Reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu; Additional reporting by Warren Strobel and James Oliphant; Editing by Will Dunham