President-elect Donald Trump on Friday praised Vladimir Putin’s decision to not immediately retaliate against U.S. sanctions, raising the likelihood he may reverse or weaken the Obama administration’s attempt to punish its former Cold War adversary for meddling in the 2016 election.
Putin declared in a Thursday statement he will not immediately retaliate for the U.S. sanctions or expel any U.S. diplomats in Russia, saying the Russian government “will plan our further steps to restore Russian-U.S. relations based on the policies of the Trump administration.”
Trump responded in a Friday tweet: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!”
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Trump could reverse many of the U.S. retaliatory actions, which include sanctions against Russian intelligence agencies and their leaders and the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats who the State Department says are actually spies.
Senior Obama administration officials expressed hope Thursday he would not do so.
“If a future president decided he wanted to allow in a large tranche of Russian intelligence agents, he could,” one senior administration official said during a conference call with reporters, adding, “we think that would be inadvisable.”
The retaliatory actions also include covert actions against the Russian government that may have already begun, officials said.
Trump has repeatedly said he does not believe intelligence agencies’ conclusion that the Russian government was responsible for data breaches at Democratic political organizations that wreaked havoc on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He has called the conclusion politically motivated.
Trump said shortly after the sanctions announcement Thursday he will meet with intelligence agencies to discuss the attribution next week “in order to be updated on the facts.” He also said, however, “it’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.”
If Trump chooses to roll back any of Obama’s public actions against Russia, he will likely face tough opposition from some members of his own party.
The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing Thursday focused on “foreign cyber threats to the United States,” the first of several hearings Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., has promised on Russia’s election meddling.
McCain vowed to impose stronger sanctions on Russia in a joint statement Thursday with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
McCain and Graham called Obama’s retaliatory measures “long overdue” and “a small price for Russia to pay for its brazen attack on American democracy.”
The main source of conflict between the Trump and Obama administrations is whether data breaches at Democratic political organizations can be confidently tied to Russia intelligence agencies or if there’s not enough evidence for a firm attribution.
U.S. intelligence agencies and the Homeland Security Department called the case conclusive in an October statement. DHS and the FBI released additional technical information Thursday aimed, in part, at bolstering that case.
Trump and his team, however, have repeatedly cast doubt on that attribution.
Trump’s future White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said before the sanctions and information release Wednesday intelligence agencies needed to provide more information to make their case for attribution, adding that many Democrats want to undermine “how big [Trump’s] win was.”
Attribution is notoriously difficult in cyberspace, but far from impossible.
The DHS and FBI “joint analysis report” released Thursday is unlikely to convince many Russian attribution skeptics, analysts told Nextgov.
That document is officially aimed at helping the public sector identify and combat similar attacks. In addition to breaches at Democratic political organizations, it discusses breaches at private firms and think tanks.
The document spends much of its introduction, however, discussing the attribution to Russian intelligence and describes itself as an expansion of the intelligence community’s October attribution.
Robert M. Lee, a former Air Force cyber operations officer, criticized the report in a blog post for winking at attribution in its written portion, but not standing it up in the technical section. Lee is founder of the cybersecurity firm Dragos.
Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of CrowdStrike, stood up that assessment in a tweet noting “lots of problems here.”
CrowdStrike is the cybersecurity firm that investigated the Democratic National Committee data breach and first attributed it to Russian government-linked hacking groups dubbed “Fancy Bear” and “Cozy Bear.” Alperovitch also claimed the DHS report includes incorrect information.
Gregory Carpenter, a senior consultant with the Cybersecurity Consulting Group, described the report as “excessively devoid of any real information” and said it “won’t help network defenders do their jobs.”
Carpenter previously served at Army Cyber Command and the National Security Agency.
“I look at [this report] and, I hate to say it, but it looks like a propaganda piece to support a political decision,” Carpenter said.