President Joe Biden has jolted the Kremlin in a manner that the impetuous Donald Trump never had the nerve to try. Twenty Russian diplomats were expelled on Thursday in the immediate aftermath of the United States imposing sanctions on Russia over cyber-attacks and what the White House calls “other hostile acts”, specifically the meddling in the 2020 presidential elections.

The measures, which target several Russian entities and officials, aim to deter “Russia’s harmful foreign activities”, the White House said. The statement has alleged that Russian intelligence was behind last year’s massive “SolarWinds” hack, aside from accusing Vladimir Putin’s Moscow of interference in the election. From 2016 to 2020, therefore, this is the second presidential election in which the Kremlin is alleged to have intervened.

While denying all the allegations, Russia has said it will respond in kind. A diplomatic crisis is thus brewing on either side of the Atlantic. The sanctions have been announced at a tense juncture for relations between the two countries, though the Cold War of the 20th century has now been relegated to the footnotes.

The sanctions, announced on Thursday, are detailed in an executive order signed by President Biden. Last month the US targeted seven Russian officials and more than a dozen government entities over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. In this case as well, Russia almost incredibly pleads it was not involved.

Last Tuesday, Mr Biden is reported to have called Russian President Vladimir Putin. While the world has been kept guessing over what transpired through the ether, Mr Biden is reported to have vowed to defend US national interests “firmly”, while proposing a meeting with Mr Putin to ascertain spheres where the two countries could work together. As it turns out, in less than a week the USRussian equation has soured considerably.

On Thursday, Mr Biden described his decision to impose sanctions on Russia as “proportionate”. “I was clear with President Putin that we could have gone further, but I chose not to do so,” Mr Biden said.

“The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia.” The way forward is through “thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process”. The US action shows that it has been a carefully calibrated diplomatic swipe.

A White House statement said the new sanctions show the US “will impose costs in a strategic and economically impactful manner on Russia” if it continues its “destabilising international action”.

It reaffirms the administration’s view that the Russian government is behind cyber-attacks and has been trying to “undermine the conduct of free and fair democratic elections” in the US and allied nations.

The likes of Mr Trump were never so forthright. The United States has blamed SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, for the SolarWinds hacking, which gave cyber-criminals access to 18,000 government and private computer networks. It is pretty obvious that the Biden administration is trying to tread a careful line.

US officials want to impose costs for a range of unacceptable behaviour from Moscow and deter further acts. They also want to signal they are going to take a tougher line than the Trump administration.