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U.S. slaps sanctions on Russia over March nerve agent attack on ex-spy in Britain

AP, Reuters, Bloomberg

The United States will impose new sanctions on Russia for illegally using a chemical weapon in an attempt to kill a former spy and his daughter in Britain this year.

The sanctions come despite President Donald Trump’s efforts to improve relations with Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, and his harsh criticism of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The sanctions are required under the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, which mandates punishment of countries that use chemical weapons in violation of international law.

Under the law — invoked previously only against North Korea and Syria — a second, sweeping round of sanctions will follow later unless Russia meets conditions that include providing assurances it will no longer use chemical or biological weapons and allowing on-site inspections to verify this.

The additional sanctions also could be averted if Trump declared that waiving them would be in the U.S. national interest — a politically risky move in light of criticism that he has been too soft on Russia.

The added sanctions could include a downgrading in diplomatic relations, blanket bans on Russian oil and on exports of “all other goods and technology” aside from agricultural products, and limits on loans from U.S. banks. The U.S. also would have to suspend aviation agreements and oppose multilateral development bank assistance.

The State Department said Wednesday the U.S. had made the determination Monday that Russia had used the Novichok nerve agent to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. Congress is being notified of the determination and the sanctions will take effect on or around Aug. 22.

Those sanctions will include the presumed denial of export licenses for Russia to purchase many items with national security implications, according to a senior State Department official.

The U.S. made a similar determination in February when it found that North Korea used a chemical weapon to assassinate leader Kim Jong Un’s half brother at the airport in Kuala Lumpur in 2017.

Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by the Novichok military-grade nerve agent in the English town of Salisbury in March.

Months later, two residents of a nearby town with no ties to Russia were also poisoned by the deadly toxin. Police believe the couple accidentally found a bottle containing Novichok. One of them died.

The U.S. had joined Britain in condemning Russia for the Skripal poisoning and joined with European nations in expelling Russian diplomats in response, but it had not yet made the formal determination that the Russian government had “used chemical or biological weapons in violation of international law or has used lethal chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals.”

Britain on Wednesday welcomed Washington’s decision to impose the sanctions. “The U.K. welcomes this further action by our U.S. allies,” a spokesman for the U.K. Foreign Office said in a statement. “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.”

Several members of Congress had expressed concern that the Trump administration was dragging its feet on the determination and had missed a deadline to publish its findings.

Lawmakers praised Wednesday’s announcement.

“The administration is rightly acting to uphold international bans on the use of chemical weapons,” said Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Royce had previously accused Trump of ignoring the Russian nerve agent attack.

“The mandatory sanctions that follow this determination are key to increasing pressure on Russia. Vladimir Putin must know that we will not tolerate his deadly acts, or his ongoing attacks on our democratic process,” Royce said Wednesday.

While criticized as too keen to strike up a friendship with Putin, Trump maintains that he has been tough on Moscow. His administration has sanctioned a number of Russian officials and oligarchs for human rights abuses and election meddling.

In March, the Trump administration ordered 60 Russian diplomats — all of whom it said were spies — to leave the United States and closed down Russia’s consulate in Seattle in response to the Skripal case. The U.S. said at the time it was the largest expulsion of Russian spies in American history.

The State Department announced a number of possible exceptions to the sanctions announced Wednesday. Waivers have been issued for foreign assistance and space flight activities, while commercial passenger aviation and other commercial goods for civilian use will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, according to the official who briefed reporters.