National Security

Trump faces Election Day deadline on Russia

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The Trump administration is facing an Election Day deadline to decide whether to impose a fresh round of sanctions on Moscow over the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in Britain earlier this year.

By law, the administration is required to either certify to Congress that Moscow has met a series of strict conditions or unveil new sanctions by Nov. 6. The deadline comes on the same day as the midterm elections and less than a week before President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are due to meet on the sidelines of the Armistice Day celebrations in Paris.

{mosads}The United States and other allies have joined the United Kingdom in blaming the Kremlin — particularly agents of Russia’s secretive military intelligence unit, the GRU — for using a military-grade nerve agent in an unsuccessful assassination plot against Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, in March.

Under fierce pressure from Congress, Trump administration officials announced penalties against Moscow in the form of sanctions in August, the most damaging of them blocking exports of sensitive national security goods and technologies to Russia.

The move ratcheted up already-high tensions, in spite of Trump’s desire for warmer relations with Moscow. Russia, which has denied involvement in the Skripal poisoning, denounced the sanctions as unlawful and at odds with the “constructive atmosphere” of the July summit between Trump and Putin in Helsinki.

Following a series of high-level meetings in Moscow last week, national security adviser John Bolton told reporters that no decisions had yet been made on the penalties.  

“That subject did come up, and I can tell you we’re looking at the statutory obligations we have in light of the chemical weapons attack in the United Kingdom,” Bolton said. “We’ve not made a decision yet on sanctions.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo approved a determination in early August that Russia used the Novichok nerve agent against Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in violation of international law, triggering mandatory sanctions under a 1991 law on the elimination of chemical and biological weapons.

A second round of sanctions is automatically triggered under the law three months after the initial decision, unless the administration certifies to Congress in writing that Moscow has met a series of criteria: The Kremlin must demonstrate that it is no longer using chemical or biological weapons in violation of international law or against its own people; provide “reliable assurances” it will not do so in the future; and be willing to submit to United Nations inspections to further prove this.

There is broad expectation that Russia will not meet the conditions. Indeed, State Department official Manisha Singh testified before Congress last month that Russia had not yet met the requirements, adding that the administration intends “to impose a very severe second round of sanctions” in November.

“It seems overwhelmingly likely that Russia has not met the standard to avoid the second round of sanctions,” said Peter Harrell, an ex-State Department official under former President Obama who worked on sanctions policy.

“Russia continues to deny that they were involved in the Skripal attack, so I can’t imagine that they are providing assurances about not using chemical weapons in the future, and I also can’t imagine that they are allowing inspections of their suspected chemical weapons sites,” said Harrell.

The administration is required to choose three from a list of six categories of sanctions for the second tranche. These include further restrictions on U.S. exports to Russia; import restrictions; a suspension of diplomatic relations with Russia; and a suspension of air travel to and from the U.S. by carriers owned or controlled by the Russian government. Less imp actful, experts say, are sanctions that would block multilateral development bank assistance or U.S. bank loans to Russia.

The State Department has offered few details about the substance of further sanctions, beyond forecasting that they would be “more draconian” than the first set.

“It’s designed to be a sliding scale of pressure, as I understand the creation of the law,” a senior State Department official told reporters in August.

It is possible that the administration will miss the November deadline, though doing so is likely to provoke fury from Congress — especially if the delay extends far past the elections.

The administration missed an initial deadline to make a determination on whether Russia violated international law in the poisoning by several months, prompting House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) to pen a letter last summer to Trump urging him to act. Royce, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, signaled last month he would be closely watching the administration’s next move.

“We’ll be watching to see that another tranche of sanctions is imposed against Russia later this year for its use of a military-grade nerve agent on British soil in March,” Royce said at a hearing on Capitol Hill. “Putin will certainly be looking for any signs that the U.S. is wavering.”

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Washington the week following the elections.

Regardless, the forthcoming decision could further complicate Trump’s effort to repair ties with Moscow. Trump is expected to meet briefly with Putin in Paris on Nov. 11, and Bolton said last week that the White House has invited the Russian president to the nation’s capital next year.

The president’s own rhetoric on Russia, including his friendly overtures toward Putin, has at times appeared out of step with efforts in his administration to take a harder line on Moscow. Trump was roundly criticized in July after he cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s election interference alongside Putin in Helsinki. Trump later walked back that statement.

During a “60 Minutes” interview earlier this month, Trump said Putin is “probably” involved in assassinations and poisonings, though he appeared to downplay such activity.

“Probably he is,” Trump said. “But I rely on them, it’s not in our country.”

In September, the British government charged two Russians with attempted murder in the Skripal poisoning, identifying them as active members of Russia’s GRU. British Prime Minister Theresa May at the time said the attack was almost certainly approved “at a senior level of the Russian state.”

Tags Donald Trump Ed Royce Mike Pompeo
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