03/15/2018 18:12 EDT | Updated 03/15/2018 18:45 EDT

U.S. Accuses Russia Of Hacking Operations, Imposes Sanctions

The U.S. froze American assets held by 19 Russians.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump talks with reporters during a meeting with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in the Oval Office of the White House on Thursday.

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration waded more forcefully Thursday into Russia's dispute with the western world, imposing sanctions to punish election meddling and computer attacks on key infrastructure, and expressing solidarity with allies following a brazen chemical attack on British soil.

The U.S. froze American assets held by 19 Russians, as well as transactions with those individuals, in response to recently revealed propaganda efforts during the 2016 election, as well as cyberattacks that targeted energy, nuclear, water and aviation facilities, and other infrastructure.

Washington also brushed aside ambiguity about whether it would support the U.K.: in a joint statement with France and Germany, all four countries condemned what they called the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.

The U.K. had thoroughly briefed its allies on known details of the attack, and the countries all share the assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation to Russia being the culprit, Thursday's statement declared.

"It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it," said President Donald Trump, who has generally been reluctant to criticize Russia.

"(It's) something that should never, ever happen. And we're taking it very seriously, as, I think, are many others."

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U.S. President Donald Trump greets Leo Varadkar, Ireland's prime minister, at the White House in Washington on March 15, 2018. The leaders of the U.S., Germany and France said all evidence points to Russia being responsible for the poisoning of two people in England.

His administration slapped financial sanctions against many of the same individuals recently charged in the Robert Mueller probe. Mueller alleged that Russians set up a disinformation unit that spread propaganda and violated American election laws in 2016.

It described other ominous activity as well.

Since at least March 2016, the U.S. says, Russian government cyber-actors have targeted U.S. government entities and critical infrastructure through a variety of penetration methods, including hoax emails.

A senior U.S. national-security official, briefing journalists on condition of anonymity, called it "a multi-stage attack campaign" against "the systems that run our factories, and our grid." The attacks are ongoing, he continued, but all the known penetrated systems have been protected.

"This is a series of actions (we're taking against Russia)," said the official.

"We're going to continue those actions to increase pressure on Russia until they change their behaviour, and become responsible members of the international community."

Getty Images
British Prime Minister Theresa May visits the city where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve agent last week on March 15, 2018 in Salisbury, England.

The Russians responded with frustration and professed disbelief. They have already warned that any action against them will be met with a reaction, including booting out foreign journalists in their own state-run networks.

Britain says blame for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury lies with the Russian state. Prime Minister Theresa May has expelled 23 Russian diplomats, severed high-level contacts with Moscow and vowed to take both open and covert actions against Russian dirty money and "hostile state activity."

Russia has dismissed the nerve-attack accusations as pure speculation; Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow would "certainly" expel some British diplomats soon in retaliation.

On Thursday, one Russian lawmaker suggested the attack could have been staged by anyone — even the U.S., or a NATO partner.

"The Americans had access not only to the technology, but had access to its development," Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Alexei Chepa, the deputy chairman of a parliamentary foreign affairs committee, as saying.

"In all likelihood, their NATO partners from Britain also had this access."

Christopher Furlong via Getty Images
Police officers in forensics suits and protective masks work at the scene of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal on March 13, 2018 in Salisbury, England.

In addition to the election meddling and infrastructure attacks, the U.S. cited the Feb. 15 NotPetya cyberattack, attributed to the Russian military, as another reason for its decision to impose sanctions.

The U.S. called the Feb. 15 incident the most destructive and costly cyberattack in history, resulting in billions in damage across several continents, as well as disruptions to global shipping, trade, and the production of medicines.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the U.K. will also have Canada's support.

"We offer our close friend and NATO ally ... our sympathy regarding the despicable poisoning," Trudeau said.

"Canada is unwavering in its commitment to the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom can count on Canada's full support in efforts to hold Russia to account for this unacceptable and unlawful behaviour."

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau smiling during a Liberal fundraising event in Toronto on March 7, 2018.

Despite Thursday's actions, meanwhile, U.S. Democrats continued to insist the president remains bizarrely reticent when it comes to Russia. The White House insisted Trump has been tough, an assertion questioned by the opposition party.

They noted that most of the people punished Thursday had been previously charged in the Mueller probe — which Trump keeps criticizing.

"(U.S.) Treasury will finally punish Russian individuals who, for the most part, were already indicted or subject to sanctions," tweeted Adam Schiff, a Democrat on the House intelligence committee.

"This from the president who said he was tougher on Russia than Obama. These sanctions will send a message to Russia, just not the one we want to send."

With files from The Associated Press