- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Trump administration slapped sanctions on two dozen Russian individuals and spy agencies Thursday, officially blaming them for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as the U.S. government joined its top European allies in blaming the Kremlin for a nerve gas assassination attempt on a former Russian spy in Britain this month.

Among those targeted for the sanctions were 13 Russian nationals and three organizations already indicted in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. They included Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch known as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “chef.”

The poisoning of the former Russian double agent and his daughter is the first chemical weapons attack in Europe since World War II, the U.S. and its allies said, accusing Moscow of violating international laws. The Kremlin has denied any role in the attack and vowed to retaliate after British Prime Minister Theresa May announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, the biggest such move by the government since the end of the Cold War.

But President Trump, acting on sanctioning powers granted by Congress months ago, was more muted in his criticism of the regime in Moscow and again avoided rebuking Mr. Putin personally.

Asked if Mr. Putin was behind the nerve gas attack on Russian defector Sergei Skripal, Mr. Trump replied, “It looks like it.”

“A very sad situation — it certainly looks like the Russians were behind it,” Mr. Trump told reporters during an Oval Office event with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in advance of St. Patrick’s Day. “Something that should never, ever happen. We’re taking it very seriously, as I think are many others.”

Mr. Trump didn’t mention the sanctions or Russian meddling in the election, an issue that has been a sore point for the president since Democrats used it to try to question the legitimacy of his White House win. The president’s continued reluctance to call out Mr. Putin has raised eyebrows among Mr. Trump’s political foes and allies in Washington.

British officials have been far more blunt in criticizing Russia, even as the U.S., France and Germany signed on to a letter saying there was “no plausible alternative explanation” to the nerve gas attack and calling it an assault on British sovereignty.

The Russian government “should go away and shut up,” British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson told reporters.

Targeting the energy grid

The Russians hit with U.S. sanctions were involved in election meddling and cyberattacks, including what Treasury Department and national security officials said were attacks on the U.S. energy grid, aviation system and infrastructure. It was the first time the administration fingered Russia for cyberattacks that began at least two years ago.

Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said the sanctions were part of a “broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia.”

“The administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure,” he said in a statement.

Moscow vowed to retaliate.

“We have already started working on our reciprocal measures,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. He didn’t elaborate on what response to expect.

Moscow has denied involvement in the poisoning, and Mr. Putin has repeatedly denied — including directly to Mr. Trump last year — that Moscow meddled in the 2016 U.S. election.

The sanctions target the Russian spy agency FSB and Russia’s military intelligence agency GRU, as well as the Internet Research Agency, which Mr. Mueller has signaled was behind much of the cybermeddling in the presidential election.

Treasury officials blamed the GRU and the Russian military for trying to interfere in the U.S. vote and for launching the “NotPetya” ransomware attack that wreaked havoc last year across the U.S., Europe and Asia.

House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce applauded the sanctions and said more needs to be done.

“Russian cyberactors have been weaponizing information and targeting critical U.S. infrastructure undeterred for years,” said the California Republican. “As our midterm elections approach, we must send a clear message that attacks on our political process will not be tolerated.”

Democrats slammed the sanctions for being too little, too late.

“OK, it took 14 months, multiple indictments, and a poisoning in Britain … but … finally. Now we must protect our elections going forward,” tweeted Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a driving force in accusations of Trump campaign collusion with Russia, called the sanctions a “grievous disappointment.”

He noted that only two more senior Russian officials were included and that the Obama administration had imposed sanctions in December 2016 on the others. He said it showed no new work by the Trump administration.

“It appears that Mr. Mueller is doing more to place consequences on Russia’s behavior than the rest of the administration,” said Mr. Schiff.

Friend or foe

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to clarify for reporters Thursday whether the White House considered Mr. Putin’s government a friend or an enemy.

Russia is going to have to make that determination,” she said. “They’re going to have to decide whether they want to be a good actor or a bad actor.”

The Trump administration has punished Russia, including with sanctions, in response to its incursion into Ukraine and the forced closure of Russian outposts in San Francisco, New York and Washington.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said that adding sanctions against the indicted Russians proved that Mr. Mueller’s investigation wasn’t a “witch hunt,” as the president claimed.

“It’s more clear than ever that the president must not interfere with the special counsel’s investigation in any way,” Mr. Schumer said.

The strained relations between the West and Russia reached a breaking point with the March 4 assassination attempt, which left the former spy, his daughter and a British police officer hospitalized with serious medical problems. Britain identified the nerve agent used as Novichok, which the Soviet military developed in the 1970s.

Novichok is difficult to detect and it is believed to be 10 times more potent than other nerve agents such as VX and sarin.

Mr. Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Yulia Scribal, 33, were found collapsed on a city bench in Salisbury, England, suffering from exposure to Novichok on March 4.

In 2004, Mr. Skripal was convicted by the Russian government of spying for MI6 and accused of revealing the names of Russian agents working in the West. He was released to the U.K. in a spy swap in 2010, becoming an outspoken critic of Mr. Putin.

During a visit Thursday to the attack site, Mrs. May made it clear that she believed the Kremlin was behind the attack.

“We do hold Russia culpable for this brazen, brazen act and despicable act,” she said.

Dan Boylan and David R. Sands contributed to this article.

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