The State Department said the sanctions will be imposed on Moscow because it used a chemical weapon in violation of international law in the attack on former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, 67, and his daughter Yulia, 33. The pair were poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent called novichok in Salisbury, UK, in March.
Following a 15-day Congressional notification period, the new US sanctions will take effect on or around 22 August, according to a statement.
Downing Street and the Foreign Office both welcomed the move. “The UK welcomes this further action by our US allies. 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 behaviour will not go unchallenged,” a spokesman said.
Three months after the attack, Dawn Sturgess, who lived in a city nearby and had no ties to Russia, died from exposure to the nerve agent. The mother-of-three had fallen ill on 30 June and passed away at Salisbury District Hospital. Her death is being investigated as murder.
Her partner Chris Rowley, who was also exposed to the novichok, was released from hospital in late-July. Police believe the couple accidentally found a bottle containing novichok.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said it had been determined Russia had “used chemical or biological weapons in violation of international law, or has used lethal chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals.”
“Following the use of a Novichok nerve agent in an attempt to assassinate UK citizen Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal, the United States, on 6 August, 2018, determined under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991 (CBW Act) that the government of the Russian Federation has used chemical or biological weapons in violation of international law or has used lethal chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals,” a statement said.
The sanctions will cover sensitive national security goods, a senior State Department official said. There would, however, be exemptions for space flight activities and areas covering commercial passenger aviation safety, which would be allowed on a case by case basis, the official added.
A second batch of “more draconian” sanctions would be imposed after 90 days unless Russia gives “reliable assurances” that it will no longer use chemical weapons and allow on-site inspections by the United Nations.
“If those criteria are not met – it is up to Russia to make that decision – a second round of sanctions … will to be imposed,” the official said, “They are in general more draconian than the first round.”
UK Prime Minister Theresa May had been quick and unwavering in her assessment of Russia’s role in using the nerve agent in the Salisbury incident.
She called it a “brazen” act, expelled 23 Russian diplomats, and cut high-level contact with Moscow.
“We consider this hostile action as totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted,” the Russian Embassy to the UK said in a statement, which denied any claims of an attempted assassination of the Skirpals, adding that “all the responsibility for the deterioration of the Russia-UK relationship lies with the current political leadership of Britain”.
Even former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been fast to call it “a really egregious act” that appears to have “clearly” come from Russia. He had called President Vladimir Putin‘s country “an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens”.
Mr Tillerson even went as far as saying the poisoning “certainly will trigger a response” from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). “I’ll leave it at that,” he said.
However, Mr Trump’s initial comments were more cautious. He said on Tuesday that “as soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be”. There was not an official condemnation from the US over the attack until the State Department’s notice of sanctions today.
In the wake of Ms May’s accusation and expulsion of several Russian diplomats from the UK, Moscow responded in kind. That same month, Mr Trump expelled 60 Russian diplomats from the US.
However, while it had expelled diplomats the US had had yet to make 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”.
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.