US sanctions on Russia show Biden means business - but it won't change Putin's actions

15 April 2021, 22:32 | Updated: 15 April 2021, 23:05

The punishment inflicted by the United States on Russia for a massive cyber breach, election meddling and other alleged "destabilising activities" is notable.

A series of sanctions, diplomatic expulsions and the naming and shaming of Russia's foreign intelligence agency, the SVR, was designed to send a message to President Vladimir Putin that US policy on Russia under Joe Biden will be very different to that of his predecessor.

The US move was also backed by an increasingly familiar chorus of support from like-minded allies - including the UK, NATO, Australia and Canada.

Yet, it is doubtful even these extra-harsh words, economic hits and diplomatic censures will be enough to change Kremlin actions.

Washington says it wants to deter bad behaviour by Moscow, but not to escalate tensions between the two sides.

President Biden has proposed a US-Russia summit in the hope the two countries can find common ground where they can co-operate.

This is commendable as dialogue has to be better than a further deterioration in relations.

But a failure to impose a sufficiently high price on the kind of activity that the Kremlin is accused of - pumping out disinformation to influence minds, cyber attacks, even potentially putting bounties on the heads of NATO troops in Afghanistan - risks normalising a certain level of hostile behaviour that should not be tolerated.

Of course, Russia denies meddling in last year's US election or orchestrating a cyber hack that used a technology company called SolarWinds to penetrate US government networks. The UK revealed on Thursday that a "low single digit" number of UK public organisations were also impacted by the breach.

The Kremlin has similarly denied any involvement in the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny with the nerve agent novichok.

That attack happened two years on from the Salisbury spy poisonings.

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The UK accused Moscow of using novichok against former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. That the same kind of chemical weapon was used on Navalny is a sign perhaps that the punishment meted out by the UK and its allies in 2018 was also not a sufficient deterrent.

A key focus now is on a significant build-up of Russian forces on Russia's border with Ukraine, though a top US general saw only a "low to medium" risk of a Russian invasion in the next few weeks.