- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2018

President Trump didn’t harangue Vladimir Putin on the phone Tuesday and the new sanctions announced last week are unlikely to dissuade the Russian’s hostile scheming, but national security analysts aren’t worried that Moscow is getting a free pass.

America’s best bet, they say, is to beat Russian hackers in cyberspace.

“We have to try to deter them, first of all, by hardening our systems and protecting our infrastructure as best we can. And we also can pose a deterrent threat based on punishment and threatening to use our offensive cyber capability against them,” said Michael C. Desch, director of the Notre Dame International Security Center.

Indeed, the U.S. has been signaling its resolve against Russia and other state-sponsored malicious hackers since the president last year elevated the U.S. Cyber Command to a full and independent unified combat command.

“The truth of the matter is we have been active in the cyber realm for some time, but you can always ratchet it up to a higher level,” said Mr. Desch.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry reassured a Senate panel Tuesday that his department’s new cyber office is poised to fend off Russian hackers, bolstering the administration’s request for nearly $100 million for the effort.

“We are committed to being as technically advanced as possible,” he said.

While rolling out new sanctions last week, the Trump administration revealed that the U.S. power grid, including nuclear power plants, have been battered by Russian cyber attacks for at least two years.

The administration also acknowledged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Among those targeted by the sanctions were 13 Russian nationals and three organizations already indicted in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the election.

Still, the U.S. has been repeatedly hit Russia with sanctions since its annexation of Crimea in 2014 with little evidence that it alters Mr. Putin’s conduct on the world stage.

The problem, according to Mr. Desch and other foreign policy analysts, is that the sanctions don’t hit Russia where it hurts — in its energy sector. Russian is the largest exporter of oil and natural gas to the European Union, and those countries aren’t going to shut off the pipelines to punish the Kremlin.

Mr. Trump has been under fire for not increasing sanctions sooner and not slapping penalties on more of Mr. Putin’s cronies, and the president was criticized anew after making a congratulatory call Tuesday to Mr. Putin.

In the call, Mr. Trump didn’t mention the election meddling, the cyber attacks or the use of nerve gas in an assassination attempt on a former Russian double agent in the U.K. that has been blamed on the Kremlin.

“The president once again has maintained that it is important for us to have a dialogue with Russia so that we can focus on some areas of shared interest. At the same time we will continue to be tough on them,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, pushing back against criticism that Mr. Trump was too soft on his Russian counterpart.

She said Mr. Trump offered the same type of congratulatory call for Mr. Putin’s election win Sunday as leaders of France and Germany did, and similar to the call President Obama made when Mr. Putin won in 2012.

Mr. Putin won a fourth six-year term in a landslide. However, rights watchdogs flagged restrictions on fundamental freedoms and political engagement in Russia that likely guaranteed the lopsided outcome.

The sanctions could have even contributed to Mr. Putin’s victory.

“Nobody denies that Putin has taken advantage of Russian nationalism to solidify his standing with the Russian public,” said Mr. Desch. “Sanctions are the sort of thing that tends to annoy the public and install an us-versus-them mentality. So it is not at all surprising that our sanctions effort has not been very successful.”

Sanctions continue to garner strong support both on Capitol Hill and on the president’s National Security Council.

“Sanctions are critical tools that, when aggressively enforced, have increasing impact over time,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, California Republican.

A National Security Council official told The Washington Times that the administration’s focus remains on cultivating a better relationship with Russia, something Mr. Trump pledged to do during the campaign.

“We will impose costs when Russia threatens our interests or our allies, and we will seek cooperation when it is in our interest to do so,” said the official.

Sebastian Gorka, a former national security adviser to the president, said sanctions were most often “blunt weapons” but still could get the job done.

“The most effective ones target specific individual at the top of the regime or close to the top of the regime,” he said. “We should target more of the key people close to Putin and the handful of oligarchs that run and own most of Russia. Including their capacity to travel freely internationally.”

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