WASHINGTON – The United States unveiled a new series of sanctions on Moscow over a nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom, in a rare direct confrontation that could escalate into a broad series of diplomatic and economic measures between the two countries.
The US announcement Wednesday included an additional threat to follow through with a second round of measures in 90 days’ time if Russia doesn’t meet a list of three criteria.
The move marked an escalation in US efforts to punish the Kremlin, which already is under a US sanctions regime for its 2014 invasion of Crimea.
President Donald Trump has been criticized by Republicans and Democrats in Congress for not standing up to President Vladimir Putin over a host of issues, including Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump has said he would be tough on Russia but also favors good relations, although his room to maneuver may be hemmed in by the new sanctions.
The sanctions were triggered by a US intelligence conclusion that Russia had used a nerve agent in the UK poisoning, State Department officials said.
UK authorities say it was highly likely Moscow was responsible for the March attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
An American official portrayed the move as part of the administration’s unified approach against Moscow. “We are all one administration, and we are all on the same page here,” the official said. “We are tough on Russia.”
Russia didn’t immediately comment on the US announcement.
Officials said the first round of sanctions could prevent hundreds of millions of dollars of sophisticated US equipment from reaching Russian state-owned companies and will require the US to halt aid to Russia, except for urgent humanitarian assistance such as food and agricultural products.
Joint US-Russian space flight activities will also be exempt from sanctions, but the measures also ban all arms sales, terminate export licenses and prohibit other forms of military financing assistance.
As mandated by US law, the three conditions that Russia must meet to avoid a second round of sanctions include halting the use of chemical and biological weapons, providing assurances that it no longer plans to use them and offering international observers or others the opportunity to verify that it is meeting these criteria.
The first round will take effect later this month, the State Department said in a statement.
The second tranche, if ultimately triggered, includes downgrading or suspending diplomatic relations, suspending flights between the US and Russia, and restricting imports of Russian goods.
Russia watchers say Moscow is unlikely to comply with US criteria that would prevent the second round kicking in, which holds more far-reaching consequences for diplomatic relations and the country’s economy.
The UK praised the move and said it would send a strong signal to Russia.
“The strong international response to the use of a chemical weapon on the streets of Salisbury sends an unequivocal message to Russia that its provocative, reckless behavior will not go unchallenged,” a UK spokesperson said.
The Senate is poised to consider separate sanctions that could prove more painful for Russia because of their potential to affect the banking sector. Legislation introduced Aug. 1 by a bipartisan group led by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R, S.C.) and Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) is intended to punish and deter malign activity including election interference and use of chemical and biological weapons.
Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, characterized the first round of sanctions as “pretty mild,” but said the potential second round “could be more onerous” as it would involve a degradation of diplomatic relations and restrictions on flights by Aeroflot, the flag carrier of the Russian Federation.
Those elements, she said, “will be painful, and they will affect the Russian pride.”
While the Russian government may offer “lots of assurances” of its compliance in an effort to avoid a second, more crippling round of sanctions, Putin’s regime will assuredly “not allow any inspections, “ Farkas said.
Skripal, a 66-year-old former colonel in Russian military intelligence who has lived in Britain since a 2010 spy exchange, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, were poisoned in the English city of Salisbury in March and were critically ill for weeks.
UK authorities have said it was highly likely Russia was responsible, a charge Russia has denied.
The sanctions potentially will affect hundreds of millions of dollars of sophisticated US technology exports, such as turbines and calibration equipment, to Russian state-owned entities.
The potential second round of sanctions discussed by State Department officials represents “the worst-case scenario for the Russians,” involving a “complete breakdown in diplomatic and economic relations,” said Boris Zilberman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Zilberman predicted that the Russians could “rebuff this as their standard protocol and call the administration’s bluff,” pinning their hopes to the president’s desire to improve relations.
In the days after the attack, the US, along with Canada and more than a dozen European countries, expelled scores of Russian diplomats and intelligence officers. Russia retaliated by expelling dozens of Western diplomats.
In July, a woman in the UK died after coming into contact with the same nerve agent used to poison Skripal and his daughter. Authorities believed she inadvertently had been exposed to items that had been contaminated.
British police opened a murder investigation over the death.
Given Russia’s strenuous denials of responsibility for the U.K poisonings, Farkas, of the Atlantic Council, said it was unlikely that Moscow would comply with US demands. “Within the relevant international [bodies], the Russians have been absolutely uncooperative, and indignant, and lying,” she said.