Last week, the Biden administration took the bold step of imposing economic sanctions in response to an act of cyber espionage, namely the SolarWinds attack. It seems that the new U.S. administration is finally getting serious about standing up to Russian aggression in cyberspace. But from the perspective of international law, the move is controversial and could potentially come back to bite the U.S. in the future, given its own cyber capabilities.
The release of the Executive Order announcing the sanctions, which also respond to Russian meddling in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections and other actions, coincided with a call between President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in which the two leaders discussed the possibility of a summit on arms control. In this context, the sanctions can be understood as a symbolic show of strength amid parallel moves to deescalate tensions and rebuild trust and respect in the wider bilateral relationship.
Nevertheless, the reprisals represent a clear break from the Trump administration, during which a serving U.S. president cast doubt on his own intelligence services’ assessments regarding Russian disinformation, electoral interference and other cyberattacks. The measures announced last week include the imposition of economic sanctions barring U.S. financial institutions from purchasing Russian sovereign debt, as well as the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats.