March 16, 2018
IntelBrief: The U.S. Acts Against Russia
The international condemnation of Russia continues to grow over the March 4 attempted murder of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England. The attack involved the use of an unspecified nerve agent that led to a pointed accusation in a joint statement signed by the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and Germany that stated ‘this use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.’
The statement goes on to say that ‘The United Kingdom briefed thoroughly its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack. We share the UK assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation, and note that Russia’s failure to address the legitimate request by the UK government further underlines its responsibility.’ On March 14, the UK announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats over the Salisbury attack, a move that Russia said it will likely match.
President Trump and much of his administration has heretofore been noticeably reluctant to publicly and pointedly criticize Russia for what the joint statement says is ‘a pattern of earlier irresponsible Russian behavior.’ That might be changing, with the U.S. announcing on March 15 that it was imposing new financial sanctions against 19 people and five organizations, most of whom had been indicted last month by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. In announcing the sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin stated these targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia. Notably, Secretary Mnuchin said that Russia was assured of doing much ‘attempted interference in U.S. elections.’ He said the sanctions were also intended to confront and counter Russia’s ‘destructive cyber-attacks and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure.’
It appears the administration is in agreement with the long-held assessment by U.S. intelligence officers and agencies that Russia continues to pose a very real threat to the U.S. through relentless active measures that include disinformation campaigns with bots and trolls, as well as attempts to penetrate the U.S. power grid. Outgoing NSA director Admiral Michael Rogers provided the latest warning on February 27, when he said Russia would continue to interfere with the U.S. unless the U.S. made it riskier to do so, saying ‘If we don’t change the dynamic here, this is going to continue.’ During his Senate confirmation hearing on March 15 to replace Admiral Rogers as head of Cyber Command (as well as the NSA), Army Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone agreed with his predecessor’s warning.
The recent developments are a sign that the U.S. and Europe might be reconsidering their muted responses to what NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has labeled ‘a reckless pattern of Russian behavior over many years.’ Russia has invaded Ukraine, illegally seized Crimea, enabled the war crimes of the Assad regime, and been quite open in its interference and disinformation campaigns in nearly every Western democracy.
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