The Trump administration sanctioned 19 Russians and five entities that in retaliation for what the Treasury Department says is their participation in election meddling and their hacking on behalf of the Kremlin.
The sanctions hit over a dozen officials working for the Kremlin-linked troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, as well as cyber operators connected to two of Russia’s most powerful intelligence agencies, the Federal Security Service and the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).
Most of the officials designated for their work as “cyber actors operating on behalf of the Russian government” have appeared on previous sanctions lists. But at least one official, Sergei Afanasyev, is a relative unknown outside Russia.
The Treasury Department describes Afanasyev as a “senior GRU official” who worked for the agency recently as February 2017. The GRU is one of two Kremlin spy agencies that send hackers into the networks of the Democratic National Committee during the runup to the 2016 election.
In previous reporting, Afanasyev has been identified as a deputy chief of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. The date in the Treasury designation corresponds to the last apparent public appearance for Afanasyev at the Russian-backed peace talks for the Syrian civil war in Astana, Kazakhstan. During the conference, Afanasyev appeared by video conference to announce that the negotiations had produced a mechanism for participants in the Syrian conflict to swap prisoners.
Despite being sanctioned for apparent hacking and information warfare, there’s little hint of Afanasyev’s work outside of Middle East and terrorism issues. Prior to the Astana talks, he appeared in public for a panel discussion on “‘Colour’ Revolutions and Regional Security: Role of the Armed Forces in Ensuring National Stability” at the 5th Moscow International Conference on Security in April of 2016, according to a review pamphlet published by the Russian military. During the discussion, Afanasyev blasted the “Reckless support for the so-called Arab Spring by а number of the world’s leading countries for the sake of their short-term political interests,” singling out NATO’s toppling of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi for creating a vacuum for jihadists to exploit. He also estimated that up to 800 foreign fighters with jihadist groups had returned to Germany over the past years as part of a “significantly increased” terrorism threat in Europe.
The Trump administration made counterterrorism cooperation with Russia in the early days of ousted National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s tenure in the White House, including a January 2017 phone call between President Trump and Vladimir Putin pledging “real coordination” against ISIS. But coordination with Russia on counterterrorism has since proved more difficult in practice, with little sign of a breakthrough in security cooperation between Washington and Moscow.