Tensions between the United States and Vladimir Putin’s Russia have reached a pitch not seen in decades on Friday, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for an investigation of whether Russia and Syria should be charged with war crimes for bombing civilian targets in the besieged city of Aleppo, and the Obama administration released an extraordinary statement accusing Russia of deliberately attempting to tamper with U.S. elections.
The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence publicly blamed the Russian government for various attacks on the computer systems of U.S. political parties and government employees, “to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
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“We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities,” the statement reads.
It continues, “Such activity is not new to Moscow — the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there.”
The statement notes that multiple states have noticed “scanning and probing of their election-related systems” by computers belonging to a Russian company, but said they could not yet directly link those attacks at the state level to the Kremlin.
Nevertheless, they encouraged state officials to seek out security assistance from the federal government.
The two broadsides from the Obama administration add fuel to an already smoldering relationship between the two countries. They come just a day after a Russian general threatened to shoot down American planes if they engage Syrian military units that are bombing civilian populations in the city of Aleppo.
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On Thursday, in response to a report in The Washington Post that the U.S. was considering the possibility of direct military action against the Syrian government forces attacking rebel-held party of the city, Major General Igor Konashenkov said publicly, “I would recommend that our colleagues in Washington carefully weigh possible consequences of the fulfillment of such plans.”
He went on to say that if missiles were fired at Syrian units, Russian soldiers in Syria would not have time to contact the U.S. on the hotline the two have established to avoid accidental encounters between their respective militaries.
“One should realize that the Russian crews manning the air defense systems will unlikely have time to find out an exact flight path of missiles and their origin,” he said.
The Russians have moved sophisticated air defense systems into Syria -- a move that raised eyebrows around the world, because the Russian troops are ostensibly just there to help defend the country against rebels, including some Islamic extremists, who have no air power at all.
Konashenkov’s remarks came a day after the Russian embassy in Washington sent out a surprising tweet that included a picture of White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest juxtaposed with a battery of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles.
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“USA wonder why Russia would want to carry the s-300 to Syria,” it said. “Because you never really know what kind of assistance terrorists might get.”
It added, “All jokes aside, #Russia will take every defensive measure necessary to protect its personnel stationed in #Syria from terrorist threat.”
All jokes aside, #Russia will take every defensive measure necessary to protect its personnel stationed in #Syria from terrorist threat. pic.twitter.com/6vc4X9lGyT— Russian Embassy, USA (@RusEmbUSA) October 5, 2016
Kerry’s remarks on Friday were made after another round of bombing destroyed more civilian targets in the city of Aleppo and left at least 20 dead.
“Russia and the regime owe the world more than an explanation about why they keep hitting hospitals, medical facilities, children, women,” he said during a ceremony welcoming French Foreign Minister Jean Marc Ayrault to Washington.
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“These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes and those who commit these would and should be held accountable for these actions ... This is a targeted strategy to terrorize civilians and to kill anyone and everyone who is the way of their military objectives.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Friday accused Kerry of trying to distract attention from the U.S.’s role in a failed ceasefire.
“The American side was simply unable to fulfil the ceasefire agreement,” she said. “They told us themselves that they have no levers of influence on the opposition.”
Earlier in the week, Russia suspended its cooperation with the U.S. in a project to destroy weapons-grade plutonium. The U.S. has halted direct talks with Russia aimed at organizing a ceasefire in Syria.