The outgoing Obama administration on Monday blacklisted five Russians, including a senior law enforcement official close to President Vladimir Putin, as the two nations' feud over U.S. election hacking escalated. The founder of WikiLeaks, publisher of the election-related emails, denounced last week's U.S. intelligence report about the hacking as a "press release."
The economic sanctions against the five Russians are not related to the U.S. intelligence agencies findings, officials said, and instead are connected to a 2012 U.S. law punishing Russian human rights violators. Americans are now banned from doing business with the men and any assets they may have in the United States are now frozen.
But the symbolic effect of the new penalties was more significant, following weeks of accusations that Moscow spearheaded a campaign designed to help Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in November's presidential election. And their timing was unmistakable: Just three days after U.S. intelligence agencies connected Putin directly to the hacking of Democratic accounts.
According to U.S. intelligence agencies, Russia provided the emails to WikiLeaks. The website's founder, Julian Assange, denies that is the case, but Democrat and GOP lawmakers have largely backed the accusation and many have demanded a sterner response for meddling in America's democratic process. Monday's action could go some way to answering those calls.
Trump, however, could repeal these sanctions when he takes office next week. The billionaire businessman has expressed an interest in warming relations with Russia and has voiced skepticism about the intelligence agencies' conclusions.
The most prominent individual targeted by the U.S. is Alexander Bastrykin, head of Russia's main investigative agency. Bastrykin and Putin attended the same university together.
The Investigative Committee under Bastrykin investigated Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky's death in prison in 2009. It determined that Magnitsky died in detention and closed the case after determining that there was no evidence of a crime.
Two of the Russians placed on the Treasury Department's list Monday have been accused of trying to help cover up Magnitsky's death. Britain blames the two others for the London murder of a former Russian spy.
Forty-four Russians have now been subjected to U.S. sanctions under the so-called Magnitsky law, the State Department said.
Before the new penalties were announced, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday that the Kremlin still believes the U.S. accusations of election hacking had no substance.
"They are amateurish and are hardly worthy of the high professional standards of top intelligence agencies," Peskov said. "We categorically rule out the possibility that Russian officials or official bodies could have been involved. We are tired of such accusations. This is beginning to remind us of a full-fledged witch hunt."
The report accused Russia of hacking into the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and individual Democrats like Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta. Russia also used state-funded propaganda and paid "trolls" to make nasty comments on social media services, it said, although there was no suggestion such operations affected the actual vote count.
It also explicitly tied Putin to the hackings, calling them the "boldest effort yet" to influence a U.S. election.
WikiLeaks founder Assange on Monday brushed aside the allegations. He called the report a politically motivated "press release" that provided no evidence Russian actors gave WikiLeaks hacked material.
The report lacked details about how the U.S. learned what it says it knows, such as any intercepted conversations or electronic messages from Russian leaders, including Putin. It also said nothing about specific hacker techniques or digital tools the U.S. may have traced back to Russia in its investigations.
A still-classified version of the report was shared late last week with President Barack Obama, Trump and top lawmakers in Congress.