Trump Finally Rolls Out Some (Limited) Russia Sanctions

The Treasury Department sanctioned Russian intelligence agencies and officials — again. But lawmakers and experts wonder when the real response will come.

U.S. President Donald Trump chats with Russian President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting on Nov. 11, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump chats with Russian President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting on Nov. 11, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration on Thursday slapped financial sanctions on a group of two dozen Russian government officials and entities. But most of them were already under U.S. sanctions or were previously named in an indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller, making many lawmakers and experts question what impact the new measures might have.

The designations announced Thursday come as part of a long-delayed effort by the Trump administration to implement some of the sanctions mandated in a bill passed overwhelmingly by Congress last summer. The delay in implementing the sanctions has drawn intense criticism on Capitol Hill.

The sanctions could suggest a slight hardening of the administration’s stance toward Russia, coming the same day that President Donald Trump for the first time appeared to acknowledge Russia’s role in the nerve-agent attack on a former Russian agent in Britain and hours after a sharply worded White House statement criticized Russian destabilization efforts.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement he expects to implement additional sanctions under the legislation “informed by our intelligence community” and “to hold Russian government officials and oligarchs accountable for their destabilizing activities.” He did not offer a timeline for when those additional sanctions would be imposed.

“It’s great that the administration has finally decided to begin implementing the law. But if this is it, it’s very weak. We are still waiting for the administration to unveil sanctions directed at Russian oligarchs, and its energy and defense sectors,” says Max Bergmann, a former State Department official now at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Thursday’s sanctions target two groups. The first is a collection of 15 individuals who worked for the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm that Mueller indicted last month for carrying out a social media campaign to divide the American public ahead of the 2016 elections. The second group includes Russia’s two main intelligence agencies and six officials employed by the GRU, the Russian military intelligence arm.

In a statement, the Treasury Department said the sanctions come in response to Russian election meddling, attacks on U.S. critical infrastructure, and the NotPetya cyberattack, a destructive computer virus judged to have “the most destructive and costly cyber-attack in history.”

Lawmakers and experts alike met the Trump administration’s belated announcement of sanctions with a mix of appreciation and wonder why it has taken so long.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the measures a “long overdue response to Russian government interference in the 2016 election.” But more is needed, he suggested: “The Russian government continues to aggressively attack democratic institutions and incite destabilizing behavior; its brazen chemical weapons strike on British soil is the latest example of what will happen if there are no serious consequences for the Kremlin’s actions.”

The sanctions today are a grievous disappointment and fall far short of what is needed to respond to that attack on our democracy let alone deter Russia’s escalating aggression,” Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who is the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “If President Trump believes that today’s action sufficiently addresses the sanctions package Congress sent to respond forcefully to Moscow’s election interference, then he is sorely mistaken.”

Thursday’s sanctions include a group of six Russian intelligence officials, only two of whom were not previously sanctioned. The Treasury Department described the two, Sergei Afanasyev and Grigoriy Molchanov, as acting “for or on behalf of the GRU,” and that they have recently served as senior officials in the Russian military intelligence agency. The Treasury Department also said that by redesignating the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the GRU under the congressional legislation, it will give the department greater ability to levy further sanctions on them.

“The immediate practical impact of these sanctions is probably going to be limited because many of the people and entities designated today, like the FSB and GRU, were already subject to U.S. sanctions,” says Peter Harrell, former U.S. Treasury Department official and now senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“I think the question is whether, in those next rounds of designations, the Trump administration follows through and does sanction prominent Russian oligarchs and other Russians who actually have money in the U.S., or whether they mostly focus on less economic important figures,” he added.

The legislation, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, mandates that the Trump administration name the individuals in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. It mandated the drafting of an “oligarch’s list” that could form the basis for future sanctions efforts. The unclassified version of the list appeared to be copied from the Kremlin website and Russian Forbes.

Treasury officials hinted this month that some of those oligarchs would be hit with sanctions, yet “nobody has been sanctioned as yet from the classified Kremlin list,” says Anders Aslund, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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