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The Morning Dispatch: SolarWinds Sanctions for Russia
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The Morning Dispatch: SolarWinds Sanctions for Russia

Plus: Diplomats meet in Vienna to discuss reentering the Iran nuclear deal.

Happy Friday! Steve wanted us to let you know that former Chicago Bears Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon said in a recent interview that the Green Bay Packers were the “best organization” he ever played for, and that “Chicago is where quarterbacks go to die.”

Declan didn’t want to include this, but Steve’s the boss.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Biden administration announced sweeping sanctions against Russia yesterday in response to the SolarWinds hack of U.S. government agencies and Russia’s interference in the 2020 election. The package will prevent American banks from purchasing Russian bonds, sanction dozens of individuals and entities for their role in the hack and election interference, and expel 10 Russian diplomats from the embassy in Washington, D.C.

  • One day after President Joe Biden announced the United States would begin withdrawing its remaining forces from Afghanistan on May 1, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a surprise trip to Kabul in an attempt to reassure Afghan leaders of America’s ongoing commitment. “The partnership is changing but the partnership itself is enduring,” Blinken said.

  • U.S. retail sales jumped 9.8 percent in March—the largest month-over-month gain since May 2020—according to a Census Bureau report published Thursday. Initial jobless claims also decreased by 193,000 week-over-week to 576,000 last week, the lowest level since March 14, 2020.

  • New data from the Centers for Disease Control yesterday further demonstrated the efficacy of the authorized COVID-19 vaccines. Of more than 66 million fully vaccinated Americans, just 5,800—or 0.008 percent—reported a COVID-19 infection. Of those approximately 5,800 “breakthrough” cases, just 7 percent were hospitalized, and about 1.3 percent died.

  • Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday she has “no plans” to bring Rep. Jerry Nadler’s bill—which would add four justices to the Supreme Court—to the House floor for a vote. Pelosi added that she supports President Biden’s recently announced commission to study Supreme Court reforms.

  • The United States confirmed 75,861 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 5.9 percent of the 1,276,500 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 982 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 565,283. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 37,962 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Meanwhile, 3,525,204 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, with 125,822,868 Americans having now received at least one dose.

Biden Sanctions Russia Over SolarWinds Hack, Election Interference

Back in March, we detailed the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s declassified report disclosing covert efforts by Russia, Iran, and other entities to influence the 2020 election. Their 15-page findings—which identified President Vladimir Putin by name—detailed Russia’s online campaign “aimed at denigrating President Biden and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the U.S.”

One month later, Biden is settling the score with his Russian counterpart, slamming the Kremlin with sweeping sanctions for its election interference and cyber attacks, among other national security breaches.

The White House said Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community has “high confidence” that the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service—also known as the SVR—executed the SolarWinds hacking operation, a cyber security breach that allowed Moscow to “spy on or potentially disrupt more than 16,000 computer systems worldwide.”

Biden’s executive order will extend existing sovereign debt sanctions on Moscow by prohibiting U.S. financial institutions from trading bonds issued by Russian entities after June 14. Ten Russian diplomats will also be expelled from the Kremlin’s embassy in Washington, D.C., and an additional 32 Russian individuals and entities will be sanctioned for their involvement in election interference campaigns. A senior administration official also told reporters Thursday that “there will be elements of our responses to these actions that will remain unseen.”

The Biden administration also discussed the Russian government’s reported involvement in paying bounties to Afghani militants to kill U.S. troops abroad, but made clear the sanctions were specifically tied to the SolarWinds hack and election interference—in part because the U.S. intelligence community only has “low to moderate confidence” in the bounties assessment. That intelligence “relies on detainee reporting” and is obscured by “the challenging operating environment in Afghanistan,” a senior administration official said.

The White House said it believed its actions to be “proportionate” to Russia’s transgressions and hoped they would not lead to a cycle of escalation, but that appears unlikely. “Washington must realize that the degradation of bilateral relations will have to be paid for. The responsibility for what is happening lies entirely with the United States of America,” Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told reporters on Thursday. “The response to sanctions will be inevitable,” she added, though she failed to elaborate on what the Kremlin’s retaliation strategy might look like. 

“They will reciprocate, so we will see 10 expulsions from the U.S. embassy in Moscow,” predicted Heather Conley, director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS. She told The Dispatch that the Kremlin will also likely sanction several American individuals and entities.

The White House’s punitive measures coincide with Russia’s troop buildup on the occupied Crimean peninsula and along the Ukrainian border near Donbas, where clashes between Moscow-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces have escalated, stoking fears of a possible Russian invasion. But notably absent from the package are measures targeting Nord Stream 2, a pipeline connecting Russian natural gas to German markets and bypassing Ukraine.

Thursday’s sanctions came two days after Biden invited Putin to attend a summit at some point in the next few months to discuss U.S.-Russian relations, though the Kremlin has yet to accept the offer. “I think we have to keep our expectations extremely modest,” Conley said of the proposed summit. “It has to be extremely well-prepared and it can’t be rushed.”

Conley also noted that—should Putin agree to the summit—the Biden administration will likely prioritize strategic stability negotiations over New START, the arms control treaty set to expire in 2026. “The clock is ticking,” Conley said. “There is very little to no trust between the both sides and we really don’t have much of an arms control framework left anymore.”

Is Now the Time to Restore the Iran Nuclear Deal?

There have been a series of important developments out of Iran in recent weeks, from JCPOA negotiations in Vienna, to a covert attack on the Islamic Republic’s Natanz facility, to President Hassan Rouhani announcing plans to begin enriching uranium at 60 percent purity. 

These incidents are not at all unrelated, as Charlotte explains in a piece for the site today. 

“Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization spokesperson, Behrouz Kamalvandi, speaking from his hospital bed after falling 23 feet into a hole caused by the [Natanz] blast, dismissed the incident as a ‘little explosion’ but vowed ‘revenge on the Zionist regime,’” she writes. “Given the clear and credible attribution to Israeli forces in sources close to the horse’s mouth, some experts fear the Islamic Republic might be cornered into retaliation in the absence of Jerusalem’s plausible deniability. Others point out that in the earliest stages of the Vienna negotiations, such a move would derail Tehran’s efforts to secure desperately needed sanctions relief.”

Will the attack on Iran’s Natanz facility meaningfully hamper its nuclear program?

“If the aim was to limit Iran’s nuclear capability, I have to say that on the contrary, all the centrifuges that went out of order due to the incident were of the IR-1 type, and they are being replaced with more advanced ones,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Monday

But blanket promises to restore the nuclear cache to its former glory may be in vain while unresolved breaches cripple Iran’s security apparatus. “Tehran will respond with rhetorical bluster, but it is likely that it has also initiated a frenzied security review to determine which external actors have obtained this access,” Norman Roule, former U.S. national intelligence manager for Iran, told The Dispatch. “Unless they can resolve their security concerns, they cannot be sure they will be able to protect their personnel or sensitive facilities from future attacks.”

The timing by Mossad, Israel’s spy agency and the suspected culprit, was no coincidence. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speculated Wednesday that the explosives were planted at the facility well in advance, “maybe 10 years ago or 15 years ago,” before being triggered remotely.

How will these developments impact negotiations surrounding the JCPOA?

The weekend’s events reportedly produced political tumult within Tehran, as some politicians urged foreign ministry leadership to pull out of the Vienna talks altogether. But Zarif said Monday that Iran remains undeterred in its quest for sanctions relief, insisting that the “desperate act” improved his envoy’s standing and calling on the Biden administration to “remove all sanctions imposed, re-imposed, or relabeled since the adoption of the JCPOA.” 

According to Brodsky, this demand is a “nonstarter,” regardless of the administration. Under the 2015 agreement, the U.S. retains the right to impose sanctions on Iran for a wide array of non-nuclear behavior—including its domestic human rights abuses, regional sponsorship of terrorism, and extensive ballistic missile program. 

Some of the non-nuclear sanctions imposed under the Trump administration target the same entities promised relief from nuclear sanctions under the deal, which affords Iran space to deem them illegitimate and request their removal as a condition of the negotiations. But it has been the consensus among American officials, dating back to the Obama administration, that sanctions targeting non-nuclear transgressions are consistent with the text of the agreement. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said as much during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in January, when asked by Sen. Ted Cruz if he thought it would be in America’s national security interests to lift terrorism sanctions on Iran. “I do not, and I think that there is nothing—as I see it—inconsistent with making sure that we are doing everything possible, including the toughest possible sanctions to deal with Iranian support for terrorism, its own engagement in that, and the nuclear agreement,” Blinken responded. 

“Fast forward a couple of months to Vienna: Those sanctions are on the table,” Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former member of the U.S. National Security Council, told The Dispatch. “The Biden administration is making an argument that it is still in our national interests to knowingly give money for terrorism if it gets us strict limits on the nuclear program,” he added, pointing to vague language from State Department spokesperson Ned Price and others as evidence that the U.S. is at least considering Tehran’s steep demand in exchange for a better deal.

Worth Your Time

  • In a piece for Arc Digital, Christopher Ferguson explores what he sees as an increasingly pervasive culture of victimhood on both sides of the political aisle. “Being a member of an aggrieved group, and that group’s aggrieved status being unquestionable and conferring certain epistemic advantages, is for many people a central input in their social experience,” he argues. “There is a critical difference between taking accusations of victimization seriously and taking victimhood claims at face value without any attempt to collect evidence, data, or the other side’s perspective. The first is consistent with properly and impartially investigating the merits of individual claims; the second is not. Predictably, it’s the second approach that gives license to, and even incentivizes, the cynical deployment of victimhood. That’s not what we want.”

  • Angela Rasmussen is a virologist at Georgetown University’s Medical Center—and she recently received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine—so who better to write about this week’s news? “Even though I am a woman and fall within the age group of people who experienced clotting, I am not worried about my own personal risk,” she writes. “Approximately 1.5 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered to women under the age of 50, so if the risk is high only for that group, the incidence is around one in 250,000. Pregnancy, using hormonal contraceptives and smoking all are associated with a much higher risk of this form of blood clotting than even crude estimates of the vaccine-related risk for clotting. The odds of having a blood clotting disorder as a result of having Covid-19 is much higher, affecting as many as one in five hospitalized patients. This means that if you received this vaccine and you are under 50, the odds are in your favor.”

  • The share of Americans who identify as politically independent has been steadily rising in recent years, but this isn’t necessarily the antidote to polarization and excessive partisanship you might think. “Many Americans are so dissatisfied with politics and turned off by how ugly and partisan it has become that they now refuse to openly identify with either party—even though most still consistently back one party,” Geoffrey Skelley writes for FiveThirtyEight. “This is troubling because it suggests that Americans not only are less willing to share their political beliefs but also no longer engage in politics in ways that go beyond just voting—developments that have negative ramifications for the health of our democracy. … The defining characteristic of our politics may be that the parties are weak while partisanship is quite strong.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • With President Biden announcing the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan earlier this week, there’s been lots of talk about how we “lost” the war. But in his latest French Press(🔒), David argues that couldn’t be further from the truth. “If I had told you [on September 12, 2001] that the United States was about to embark on a military response that would, over the course of the next twenty years, 1) almost immediately depose the Taliban and ultimately kill Osama bin Laden, 2) defend our nation from enduring even a single further large-scale terror attack, and 3) cost fewer American combat fatalities in Afghanistan than were lost in a single day on 9/11, would you have thought, ‘sounds like we lost?’” he writes. “No. Of course not. Because we haven’t lost. Because we aren’t losing. Our military measures since 9/11 have accomplished their primary, fundamental goal: defending our nation from jihadist terror.”

  • Jonah had Rep. Mike Gallagher back on The Remnant for another half-baked ideas podcast—this time with alcohol—and … things got weird. Spray-painted meteors? Annexing Greenland? Tune in to find out.

Let Us Know

President Biden’s dog trainer told the Washington Post yesterday that he signed an agreement preventing him from talking to the media. What secrets about Champ and Major is he hiding from the American public??

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).