The Trump administration today shifted gears and called out Russia for cyberattacks and online election-meddling online by levying financial sanctions against five organizations and 15 individuals in Russia as well as by issuing an alert on that nation's targeting of US critical infrastructure and energy networks.
It was a double-whammy but mostly symbolic move by the administration that came in the wake of international pressure after months of lukewarm response to Russian cyber threats. The administration late last month chimed in after the UK in naming Russian military hackers behind the crippling NotPetya ransomware campaign in June 2017 aimed at destabilizing Ukraine and that spread to other nations, including the US. Via a statement from the White House Press Secretary's office, the administration warned that the attacks "will be met with international consequences."
The sanctions announcement today by the US Department of Treasury as well as the US Department of Homeland Security (DHC) US-CERT alert hit after a joint statement this morning by the US, UK, Germany, and France that Russia was behind the so-called military-grade nerve-agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK last week.
Among the sanctioned Russians are officials with the Russian military agency, aka the GRU, hackers, and 13 so-called troll operatives from Russia – including the infamous Internet Research Agency (IRA) - who previously were indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. Treasury announced the moves as part of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) as well as Executive Order 13694 (Blocking the Property of Certain Persons Engaging in Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities).
The timing was right politically for the administration to pivot and turn up the heat on Russian hacking, experts say, even though sanctions are relatively benign. "Talking tough on Russia and doing sanctions on meddling would be a tacit admission of Russia playing in our elections and could be used by others to continue to question his legitimacy as president," explains John Bambenek, a vice president at cybersecurity firm ThreatSTOP. "The chief geopolitical mistake Russia made were those flagrant assassinations in the UK. Now it's possible to pivot to where I think they wanted to be without being in the mire of 'Putin elected Trump.'"
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI, meanwhile, issued an alert via US-CERT that warns of a known multi-stage attack campaign by Russian government hackers to collect intel on US energy ICS networks. The alert calls out a specific and known Russian APT threat group, Dragonfly, which long has been targeting US energy entities. The agencies also issued indicators of compromise as well as technical details of the attack patterns, which include spear-phishing attacks using compromised, legitimate email accounts as their first "staging" target victims, which then provide entrée into the ultimate larger targets, ICS networks.
"The Administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in US elections, destructive cyberattacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure," Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said in a statement. "These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia. Treasury intends to impose additional CAATSA sanctions, informed by our intelligence community, to hold Russian government officials and oligarchs accountable for their destabilizing activities by severing their access to the US financial system."
The sanctioned Russians and organizations will have any assets in the US frozen, and will be unable to conduct business with Americans. Under an amended Executive Order 13694, the 13 troll operatives with IRA were named, as well as the IRA and other organizations involved. Under the CAATSA sanctions, the US named Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), GRU, and five Russian individuals: Sergei Afanasyev, associated with the GRU; Vladimir Alexseyev, associated with the GRU; Sergey Gizunov, associated with the GRU; Igor Korobov, associated with the GRU and its chief as of January of this year; Igor Kostyukov, associated with the GRU; and Grigoriy Molchanov, also associated with the GRU.
Those five Russians had previously been sanctioned under the Obama administration.
President Donald Trump in March 2017 quietly extended for one year the "national emergency" executive order issued by his predecessor Barack Obama that ultimately led to the sanctions and retaliatory measures taken by the Obama administration against Russian officials for that nation's role in hacking activities targeting the US election.
Security experts don't expect the sanctions to force Russia to curb its cyberattacks against the US. "The Russians will hit back on sanctions with [more] cyberattacks," says Tom Kellermann, chief cybersecurity officer with Carbon Black.
Russia also may slap the US with some sanctions of its own, notes ThreatSTOP's Bambenek. "I think we have run out of the 'easy' sanctions that can cause impact. Most of the 13 indicted are, in effect, nobodies," he says. "I suspect Russia's first shot at retaliation is going to be at the UK because that is higher profile. I think Russia would like to do something to us on cyber-sanctions" especially in the wake of the US government's ban on Kaspersky Lab software, he says.
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