US President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Electoral college certification at the Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware on December 14, 2020. (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP) (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)
CNN  — 

President-elect Joe Biden’s approach to Russia is now an even tougher challenge with news that Moscow may be responsible for a massive cyber attack on US federal agencies – one Biden said he will impose “costs” for.

The President-elect and his team are preparing a “cost imposition strategy” to respond to Russia – not just for the hack, if Moscow is responsible, but for Russia’s other disruptive actions also – measures that will include but won’t be limited to sanctions, according to a source close to Biden.

“A good defense isn’t enough,” the President-elect said in a Thursday statement about the hack that did not mention Russia by name. “We need to disrupt and deter our adversaries from undertaking significant cyberattacks in the first place. We will do that by, among other things, imposing substantial costs on those responsible for such malicious attacks, including in coordination with our allies and partners.”

When asked about the hack in a Thursday interview with Stephen Colbert, Biden promised that “individuals as well as entities will find they have, there are financial repercussions for what they did.”

The attack on government agencies and hundreds of Fortune 500 companies is just one of a series of aggressions attributed to Russia over the last four years that a Biden administration plans to extract a cost for, a source close to Biden told CNN. As it does, Biden’s team will also work to enhance deterrence by bolstering US defenses and working alongside allies, the source explained.

‘A series of costs’

“There will be a series of costs imposed for all of these actions,” said the source close to Biden, describing the plan for a differentiated set of measures and stressing that Biden was not issuing empty threats over the last few years as Russia has assaulted US interests and personnel.

After taking office, the President-elect will seek to determine the scope of Moscow’s interference in the 2020 election as well as their actions on a number of other fronts, including Russia putting bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan during the Trump administration. Once that is done, Biden will chart a path forward on dealing with Russia in tight coordination with allies, two sources close to Biden said.

“I am also confident, and this is equally as important, that we will look at how we better defend and deter going forward so that it becomes less likely that these sorts of policies will be executed down the road from the bounties to the cyber attacks,” the source close to Biden said.

The Biden team does not plan to use a triage system and only respond to the most urgent Russian aggressions; they believe that all Russian aggression must be answered, given Trump’s lack of response over the last few years, the source close to Biden said.

The Biden team expects more sanctions to be rolled out as part of the “cost imposition strategy,” but sanctions will not be the only option for deterrence, the source said. Experts point to cyber options as also being possible.

As Biden charts his path on Russia, he will not only have to take into account Moscow’s destabilizing activities in eastern Europe and the Russian bounties in Afghanistan. He will also have to factor in suspicions that Moscow is behind a series of mysterious sonic attacks on US diplomats overseas and Moscow’s interference in the 2020 election campaign.

“The Biden administration has an even more difficult task than any other new administration since the Cold War, because the policy is in such shambles now after four years of Trump,” said Edward Fishman, who worked on Russia sanctions during the Obama administration.

“Trump has repeatedly articulated, ‘boy wouldn’t it be great if we could get along with Putin,’ as if Putin weren’t somehow waging a covert war against the US and its allies,” said the source close to Biden. “The incoming team is under no illusion that Russia is a potential cooperative partner. There is a very limited number of issue areas where it is possible for the US to cooperate with Russia.”

The areas where US interests with Russia overlap and where Biden is willing to work with Moscow as needed include climate change and public health issues, sources close to Biden and experts explained.

And almost immediately, the President-elect’s national security team wants to engage Russia on the looming February 5 expiry of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the last US-Russia pact that limits the growth of the world’s two largest arsenals. A second source close to Biden told CNN that if there’s no movement on New START before he takes office, Biden would “work hard, intensively, immediately to try to extend it.”


“Biden is a seasoned politician and Putin, by this time, is a seasoned leader,” said Angela Stent, a professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a former national intelligence officer for Russia at the State Department. “They both know how to make deals in their own way. So, if there are some deals that they need to make, they probably would do them.”

The nuclear treaty is one of a series of issues that the Biden administration will have to confront or potentially coordinate with Russia on, including efforts to sanction North Korea and ensure stability in Afghanistan – questions that the President-elect wants to consult with allies on first. Also on the roster for discussion with allies: the question of managing sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea.

Many experts also believe that a Biden administration will quickly sanction Russia for poisoning opposition leader Alexey Navalny. This action – which Trump has resisted – will put the US on equal footing with its European allies who have already rolled out these sanctions.

Now, the President-elect will also have to contend with the fact that Russia may be behind one of the largest and sophisticated cyberattacks in years, one that reached into agencies across the administration and may complicate the security and decision-making of his own administration.

US officials suspect that Russian-linked hackers were behind the recent data breach of multiple federal agencies and are continuing to investigate the incident, multiple sources told CNN Monday.

Part of Biden’s approach to Russia will include a focus on how to bulk up US deterrence and defense to stymie Russian aggressions, explained one of the sources close to Biden. On Thursday, Biden committed to elevating cybersecurity “as an imperative across the government” when he is in the Oval Office.

‘Summit of democracies’

Some have advocated for a White House Cabinet level cyber security coordinator, which one source said the Biden team is considering.

One of the bigger foreign policy moves Biden has discussed publicly is a ‘summit of democracies’ – a signal that he will focus on rallying the democratic world to confront not only general challenges such as public health, climate and violent extremism, but also how to deal with Russia and China, the sources close to Biden said.

Despite Trump’s efforts to foster good relations with Putin, strains in the US-Russia relationship are evident in the scope of sanctions Washington has brought against the Kremlin. The US has sanctioned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, its election interference, malicious cyber activities, human rights abuses, use of a chemical weapon, weapons proliferation, illicit trade with North Korea and providing support to Syria and Venezuela.

Trump – who once said he believed Putin over his own intelligence agencies – was wary to apply new sanctions. Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton wrote in his book that Trump wanted to rescind sanctions his own administration imposed on Russia for its poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK, and thought they “were being too tough on Putin.”

Biden’s approach to Putin has been more rigid.

In 2011, Biden met Putin as Vice President. Biden looked the Russian President in the eyes and said, “I don’t think you have a soul,” he wrote in his book – a reference to former President George W. Bush claiming to have seen Putin’s soul when they met each other’s gaze.

Biden and Antony Blinken, who is his pick to be Secretary of State, were both heavily involved in the Obama administration’s Russia policy.

“One challenge that all of the post-Cold War US presidents have had is that they come into office thinking that they can be the one to finally change US-Russia relations. That is why you had Bush coming into office and saying he could see Putin’s soul; you had Obama come into office with a reset, you had Trump come into office saying he could make a deal with Russia,” said Edward Fishman, who worked on Russia sanctions during the Obama administration. “That is not a concern for me with Joe Biden or Tony Blinken.”

As a candidate, Biden has been a more vocal critic of recent Russia aggressions than Trump. Translating Biden’s commitments into policy, given the multitude of issues involved, will be the challenge.

“They start off with a pretty jaundiced view of Russia because of what Russia has been doing,” Stent said. “They will just have to calculate how far they can push on the punitive side as opposed to needing, on some issues, to work with Russia.”