The Trump administration took one of its strongest actions against Russia yet, imposing sanctions on 19 Russian individuals and five organizations in response to interference in the 2016 presidential election, as well as cyberattacks including last year’s “NotPetya” attack and previously undisclosed attempts to penetrate the U.S. power grid.
The move comes the same day that the U.S., French, German, and British governments issued a statement agreeing with Britain’s conclusion that Russia was behind the March 4 nerve agent attack that hospitalized a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England. Both the Trump administration and the French government had been slow to sign on to the British government’s finding early this week. The Treasury Department’s announcement of the sanctions specifically mentions the poisoning as an example of the “reckless and irresponsible conduct” of the Russian government. The British government expelled 23 Russian diplomats on Wednesday but has, notably, not sanctioned any specific individuals or organizations in response to the attack.
Trump’s sanctions targeted the 13 individuals and three organizations indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in February for their role in subverting the 2016 election in support of Trump campaign—all affiliated in some way with the St. Petersburg troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency. This was done under the authority of a 2015 executive order cracking down on cyber threats that was previously used by the Obama administration in late 2016 to sanction Russian individuals and entities accused of cyber operations during the election. The sanctions will prevent these individuals from entering the United States, freeze any assets they have here, and bar U.S. companies from doing business with them.
The biggest name on the new list is the IRA’s alleged bankroller Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a well-connected restaurateur known as “Putin’s chef.” Given that he’s already sanctioned and banned from the U.S. for his links to paramilitary groups in Ukraine, he may not be sweating about the new measures.
In addition to those sanctions, the Trump administration has also finally made use of its sanctioning authority under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Congress passed the bill, meant to crack down on Russia’s election meddling as well as its actions in Ukraine, over Trump’s objections last summer. The administration has dragged its feet on complying with the bill’s provisions so far and used a waiver in January to avoid issuing the new sanctions it entails. Treasury on Thursday sanctioned two Russian government agencies—the domestic security service, the FSB, and the main military intelligence service, the GRU—as well as six GRU officials under the sanctions act for their cyber activities. These entities are also unlikely to feel much impact since they, too, are already sanctioned for activities in Ukraine. (For what it’s worth, this hasn’t prevented the heads of these agencies from traveling to Washington.) Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin did say in his statement Thursday that more CAATSA sanctions could be coming.
The new measures are a more dramatic step than the administration has taken so far, though probably still not enough to either seriously deter Russian activities or convince Trump’s critics that he sees those activities as a problem.
Despite the very real cause for suspicion about Trump’s motives when it comes to Russia, his administration hasn’t exactly been soft on Moscow. Obama’s sanctions have not been lifted, and more have been applied under other legislation. The administration has sold offensive weapons to Ukraine and taken positions opposed by Russia on Syria, Iran, North Korea, and a number of other issues. But it’s fair to say that Trump himself has been extremely reluctant to criticize Russia or accept the consensus that it interfered in the election.
In that respect, the most significant takeaway from Thursday’s actions may be that the treasury has effectively endorsed the indictment by Mueller’s team—which Trump has repeatedly publicly attacked—against these people and organizations for having “tampered with or altered information in order to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election.”
Will Trump continue to downplay or deny that the Russians interfered to help his campaign when his own administration has taken action to punish them for doing so? Well, yes, he probably will.