It’s likely part of an effort to make President Donald Trump look tough on Russia.
The forthcoming sanctions will increase pressure on Moscow, and will be the first time the US officially punishes Russia for the poisoning, though President Trump kicked out 60 Russian diplomats after the attack.
The new sanctions fall under a 1991 law known as the Chemical and Biological Weapons and Warfare Elimination Act and will come out in two waves, starting around August 22, about a month after a congressionally mandated deadline.
As NBC News first reported, the first set of sanctions will effectively add to restrictions already in place, like in arms sales. That means there will likely be some added pain — like cutting off millions in exports — but they will not significantly hurt Russia.
But the second tranche that comes into effect three months later could be more harmful to Moscow. Those sanctions may lead to “downgrading diplomatic relations, suspending state airline Aeroflot’s ability to fly to the US, and cutting off nearly all exports and imports,” NBC News notes.
The State Department just announced that the U.S. has determined Russia violated the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act by poisoning former Russian spy & his daughter. Sanctions will go into effect later this month. pic.twitter.com/ektEkEi8mZ— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) August 8, 2018
The administration will offer some waivers, however, primarily in the areas of spaceflight — where the US and Russia work closely together — and for Russian entities that form parts of US businesses.
Why is this happening now?
It’s not surprising that it took this long for the administration to put these sanctions in place — Trump openly resists bashing Russia since he wants a better relationship with the country’s president, Vladimir Putin.
That led Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, to rebuke the administration on July 26 for failing to sanction Russia for trying to kill Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Four months later, two people in the UK also came into contact with the same Novichok nerve agent that was used against Skripal, and one of them — a woman named Dawn Sturgess — died.
“Your compliance with the Chemical and Biological Weapons and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991 is critical to showing Putin that we are serious about challenging his deadly acts, as well as his ongoing attacks on our democracy,” Royce wrote to Trump in a letter.
It’s likely the administration has chosen to act now because it does want to punish Russia. But it’s also quite possible that the announcement has something to do with the fact that Trump is still recovering from his performance alongside Putin in Helsinki last month.
During a press conference after their private one-on-one meeting, Trump accepted Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, even though US law enforcement and intelligence agencies concluded that Russia did, in fact, interfere.
Since then, the Trump administration has tried to bolster its stance to prove it is still tough on Russia. Perhaps these latest sanctions will help that effort — even though they’re coming about five months after the incident in question.