The White House just made its most significant move against Russia, but it may only be 'smoke and mirrors'

Vladimir PutinAlexei Nikolsky, Kremlin Pool Photo / AP Images

  • The Trump White House took its boldest stance against Russia yet by imposing new sanctions on the Russian nationals and entities charged in the Russia investigation, in addition to others.
  • The move comes after the administration missed a congressionally-mandated deadline for imposing the sanctions, but experts largely agree that the action is "better late than never."
  • The sanctions will help the US show solidarity with its Western allies amid a Russian nerve agent attack on a former spy on British soil.
  • But whether the sanctions will have a material impact on Russia's cyber operation or on its economy remains to be seen.

The Trump administration's announcement Thursday of new sanctions against 19 Russian nationals and five Russian entities, including those who were indicted in the Russia investigation last month, marks the US's boldest response to Russia's election interference since President Donald Trump took office last January.

The US intelligence community concluded that month that Russia mounted an elaborate campaign to interfere in the 2016 election with the specific goal of elevating Trump to the presidency. It did not make a judgment on whether Russia's efforts succeeded in altering the outcome of the race.

Thurday's sanctions target the Russians who special counsel Robert Mueller indicted on charges of conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 US election by waging a social media influence operation to sow discord and sway public opinion in favor of Trump.

Though the White House has acknowledged that Russia meddled - while maintaining that it was not to help Trump and did not have an outcome on the election - it has so far fallen short of making a specific statement or taking action calling out Russia for its aggression.

The new sanctions also come one month after a congressionally-mandated deadline by which the White House was supposed to penalize Russia for its interference.

While experts agree, by and large, that the sanctions are better late than never, their effectiveness is up for debate.

A step in the right direction

donald trumpU.S. President Donald Trump waves upon his arrival in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., March 2, 2018.Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

The announcement "is a welcome, if long overdue, step from the Trump administration," said Ned Price, the former senior director of the National Security Council and a CIA veteran.

Andrew Wright, a professor at Savannah Law School who served as associate in the White House counsel's office under former President Barack Obama, said he was "glad to see the Trump administration acknowledging the legitimacy of the findings of our intelligence community and the Mueller grand jury, that Russians illegally interfered with our elections."

He added that he was "relieved" the administration was complying with its legal obligation to the sanctions bill that Congress passed last year.

Trump signed the bill into law last August but criticized it as "seriously flawed." When the Congressional deadline by which the White House was mandated to enforce the sanctions came in January, the administration declined to do so, saying that just the law's existence was deterring Russian defense sales.

Nevertheless, "this is a step in the right direction," Wright said. "Better late than never."

Others aren't so sure.

"These new sanctions are totally inconsequential," Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, tweeted after the announcement. "The previous administration had already sanctioned most of the entities and individuals designated today, so there's really nothing new here."

David Kennedy, the CEO of TrustedSec who previously specialized in cyberwarfare at the National Security Agency, said the sanctions seem to stem from the Russia probe since they target the Internet Research Agency, one of the entities Mueller indicted.

"It doesn't do much as far as swinging the pendulum one way or the other, but what it does is directly call out Russia for meddling in the election cycle, which is a pretty bold statement from the US that hasn't been made in the past," he said.

The administration's response also comes as it weathers additional criticism for what some characterized as a lukewarm initial response to the nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the UK.

The British government concluded earlier this week that it was "highly likely" the attack was ordered by the Russian government and, in retaliation, expelled 23 Russian diplomats and imposed additional penalties on Russians under suspicion living in the UK.

The White House initially called the attack reckless and indiscriminate but declined to name Russia as the perpetrator.

After facing sharp scrutiny from observers and former diplomats who said the US was hanging its closest ally "out to dry," the White House and multiple US officials said Russia was responsible and that the US stood with the UK in condemning Moscow.

"The timing [of the new sanctions] raises the question: Would the administration have followed through with these designations - which were mandated by Congress - had Moscow not undertaken a chemical weapons attack on the soil of our closest ally?" Price said.

'Russia plays by a completely different book'

Vladimir Putin and Donald TrumpVladimir Putin and Donald Trump meet on July 7 at the G20 summit. The two presidents spoke again at a dinner that evening.Carlos Barria/Reuters

Experts said the US's latest move is significant because it joins the country with its Western allies in placing mounting pressure on an increasingly aggressive Russia, whose influence in both the cyber and military realms has become more overt in recent years.

Whether or not the sanctions will have a material impact on Russia's operations, particularly as it relates to the cyber arena, remains to be seen.

"Such narrowly targeted sanctions have little to no impact on the operations of Russia's intelligence services or its proxies, since these organizations don't transact (at least overtly) through the US financial system," Carpenter wrote.

Kennedy largely agreed, and added that the US's main hurdle on the cyber front is that "Russia plays by a completely different book."

"We can't just go out and say we're going to hack Russia and completely cripple their infrastructure, because that's not what we do as a country," he added.

The US could retaliate against Russia in the form of a military offensive, shutting down certain portions of their cyber capabilities, or stealing and publishing hacking tools used by Russian intelligence, much like the Russia-linked group, the Shadow Brokers, did with US cyberweapons in 2016. But even that, experts say, is a double-edged sword for the US because it risks burning crucial intelligence sources.

"Sanctions are not going to work if we really want to curb Russia's influence," Kennedy said. "If the US really wants to hit Russia, it needs to be more aggressive and transparent and public and really embarrass Russia on the international stage. That's what it'll take."

Carpenter was not optimistic.

"I suspect the Trump administration will cite these designations as evidence that it is getting 'tough' on Russia, but in this case it's all smoke and mirrors," he wrote.

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