Moscow -- The Kremlin has condemned as “unacceptable” new sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Russia over Moscow's alleged involvement in the poisoning of a former Russian double agent.
The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, however, told reporters Thursday that it was too early to talk about countersanctions and that Russia still hoped for "constructive relations" with the United States.
The State Department on Wednesday announced that the Trump administration was imposing mandatory new sanctions on Russia for violating a U.S. law prohibiting chemical and biological weapons. In March former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, were poisoned with a Soviet-designed nerve agent known as Novichok. The poison was smeared onto the front door of Skripal's home in Salisbury, England, and U.K. authorities have blamed the assassination attempt on the Kremlin.
The new U.S. sanctions ban the export of any national security-sensitive goods or technology to Russia and will affect such products as gas turbine engines, electronic devices and equipment, circuits and calibration equipment. A senior State Department official estimated the sanctions could affect hundreds of millions of dollars in trade with Russia.
More worrying for Russia, however, is that the law cited by the administration includes a second provision that will impose a second round of far more punishing sanctions on Moscow if it now fails to comply with the legislation within 90 days.
The Chemical and Biological Weapons and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991 requires that in order to avoid the next round of sanctions, Russia must prove it is not using chemical or biological weapons and allow impartial observers to verify compliance.
If Moscow violates the sanctions then it could see restrictions on flights from the Russian Aeroflot airline to the U.S., sanctions on U.S. bank loans, increased export and import restrictions, including on gas and petroleum, and potentially even a downgrade of diplomatic relations.
Peskov on Thursday gave no indication that Russia would accept the U.S. criteria or permit any inspections.
“We consider the tying of new restrictions -- which as previously we consider illegal -- with the affair in Salisbury to be categorically unacceptable,” Peskov told reporters during his daily telephone briefing.
Russia has repeatedly denied any connection to the poisonings and has rejected British and European demands that it provide access to its chemical weapons arsenals, which Moscow insists it has destroyed.
Peskov said the U.S. had yet to inform Russia of the sanctions and so it would be incorrect to talk about countermeasures, though Russia’s embassy in Washington wrote in a statement the State Department had contacted officials.
Russia is already under a raft of sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union, imposed over its invasion of Ukraine and its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The Trump administration has also already responded to the nerve agent poisonings. In March 60 Russian diplomats were expelled and Russia's consulate in Seattle was closed. The administration said then it believed Russia was responsible for the chemical attack.
The timing of the decision to now find Moscow in violation of the sanctions-inflicting law, five months later, has therefore been seen as significant by some, coming at a moment when President Trump is under pressure to appear tough on Russia over election meddling.
The sanctions announcement coincided with reports that the White House is drafting its own executive order that would sanction foreigners involved in election interference. The Washington Post reported that the 10-page order would give the president the authority to impose sanctions on “10 of the 30 largest business entities” in a country whose government has interfered in an election. It would also impose mandatory sanctions on individuals found to have taken part in the interference.
Some former officials told The Post, however, that the order seemed more like a “a cover-your-behind exercise” for the administration than intended to seriously deter foreign powers. The Post concluded it is likely an attempt to stave off far more punitive sanctions legislation currently being considered in Congress.
Last week, a group of Democrat and Republican senators introduced a bill that would impose some of the toughest sanctions ever placed on modern Russia. Among other measures, it would put sanctions on any transactions related to Russian energy projects and new Russian sovereign debt, as well ban American individuals and businesses from working with Russian oil projects.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters he wanted it to be a “sanctions bill from hell.” Russian stocks slumped following its unveiling and the dollar hit a two-year high against the rouble.
It remains unclear if lawmakers will succeed in passing the bill, with Congressional leaders having seemed unconvinced.
Trump's administration's new sanctions though throw off his recent attempts at outreach to the Kremlin that was on display at his meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month. Just this week, Republican Sen. Rand Paul -- who has been one of Trump’s few defenders over the Helsinki summit delivered a letter to Putin from Trump that he said emphasized a desire for greater cooperation in counterterrorism and cultural exchanges.
Peskov on Thursday appeared to extend an olive branch again to Trump, saying that Russia still hopes for “constructive relations” with the U.S.
“Without question,” Peskov said. “President Putin spoke about this at the press conference in Helsinki. He maintains the hope for working out constructive relations with Washington.”