National Security

Mystery surrounds elusive sanctions on Russia

The Trump administration has not imposed a second round of sanctions on Russia over the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in Britain more than eight months after telling Congress that Moscow had triggered them.

State Department officials have repeatedly insisted the United States intends to impose new sanctions, which are required under a law passed by Congress in 1991 on eliminating chemical and biological weapons.

But several months have passed without news, and members of Congress say they have heard little from the administration on the topic.

A former government official familiar with the matter told The Hill that the State and Treasury departments finalized a proposed sanctions package by March at the latest, but top officials have yet to sign off.

"Options have been ready to go for several months at this point and senior folks in the administration haven't made the decision or given the green light to roll them out," the former official said.

Bloomberg reported at the end of March that the White House had received the sanctions package and that State and Treasury were waiting for the White House to sign off before they issued the new punishment for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.

The reason for the lack of action is shrouded in mystery. The White House did not offer a comment for this story.

A State Department spokesperson told The Hill that administration officials "hold Russia accountable" for the Skripal poisoning and that there is "no deadline for imposing the second round of sanctions."

"We are in compliance with the law. We do not preview sanctions decisions," the official said. 

President Trump has long expressed an interest in forging better relations with Russia. A fresh round of sanctions could make that tougher.

Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Osaka, Japan, at the end of June. The two discussed arms control and other global security issues and agreed that improving relations was a mutual interest.

The administration was required by Nov. 6 to determine whether Russia had met a series of strict criteria under the 1991 law - including certifying it is no longer using chemical weapons - to avoid a second round of sanctions.

At the time, the State Department said Russia had triggered new sanctions and that the department was "consulting with Congress" on the next step. But it provided no timeline, something that led to criticism from then-House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who has since retired from Congress.

A top State Department official told senators at a May 15 hearing that the agency had the sanctions "teed up" but that it was a matter of "timing." 

"We have done the analysis with the sanctions, senator. We have those teed up. I would defer to the Secretary and the president, but my response would be it is part of a larger Russia strategy," Andrea Thompson, under secretary of State for arms control and international security, told Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"We've called them out," Thompson added.

Menendez and other Democrats have been frustrated by the delay, but broadly lawmakers have been less vocal with complaints compared to other Russia-related topics such as election interference.

"There are a lot of things that this administration has not done vis-à-vis Russia that concern me greatly. This is just one piece of the puzzle," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) told The Hill recently.

Asked if he was worried about the lack of progress, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration should focus its energy on sanctions that are most "effective" at penalizing Moscow.

"We have an awful lot of sanctions on Russia," Johnson said. "What I think we ought to do is really take a look at the ones that are most effective and if we're going to increase sanctions, focus them on effective sanctions." 

Menendez wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in late January urging him to swiftly impose the sanctions "to ensure that the statutorily mandated sanctions regime is not undermined." 

The State Department responded to Menendez on Feb. 22 and said the department was moving forward with the requirements but noted that "this process takes time," according to a letter obtained by The Hill.

"As with the first round of sanctions, the Department is carefully considering which sanctions to select from the full list of possible measures and the impact that these sanctions will have on U.S. national security interests," wrote Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charles Faulkner.

The administration imposed the first set of sanctions in August, when Pompeo certified that Russia had violated international law with its use of the Novichok nerve agent in the failed assassination plot against Skripal in March 2018. Russia has denied involvement in the Skripal poisoning.

The administration also expelled dozens of Russian diplomats believed to be intelligence agents and closed a Russian consulate in Seattle last March following the poisoning.

Officials have also noted the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the GRU officials responsible for the nerve agent attack in December along with other Russian intelligence officers penalized for their role in global cyberattacks.

The second tranche of sanctions is designed to be more draconian and has the potential to significantly squeeze the Russian economy. They would also likely dramatically escalate tensions with Moscow.

The administration is required to choose at least three from a menu of six categories of sanctions, which includes 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. It is unclear what measures the State or Treasury departments have settled on.

Critics argue that the administration's lack of action sends the signal that the U.S. isn't serious about punishing countries that violate U.S. laws and could undermine efforts to deter future chemical weapons use or sanctions policy more generally.  

Some argue that the administration is flouting the law, which was intended for sanctions to be imposed swiftly.

"The fact that the Russians are not being punished means that they won't be deterred from using chemical weapons and other countries watching are less likely to be deterred," said Evelyn Farkas, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and former deputy assistant secretary of Defense in the Obama administration.

Carla Robbins, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, also said that it undermines the credibility of Pompeo, who reiterated plans to "hold Russia accountable" on a February call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov - suggesting sanctions could be imminent.

"It once again suggests that the president does what he wants no matter what the state of policy is or the requirement of law is on this, and he really doesn't want to punish the Russians," Robbins said, pointing to Trump's lighthearted warning to Putin in June that he not meddle in the 2020 election.

Robbins also noted that it's impossible to know the cause for the sanctions delay because the White House has been "utterly opaque about it."

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