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Trump sanctions Russia again over chemical weapons attack in UK

An old law, and congressional pressure, pushed Trump to make the move.

People dressed in British Army fatigues remove bricks and rubble from the Skripal’s house in Salisbury, where the roof is being taken down after the nerve agent attack.
People dressed in British Army fatigues remove bricks and rubble from the Skripal’s house in Salisbury, where the roof is being taken down after the nerve agent attack.
Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images

President Donald Trump just imposed new sanctions on Russia for its premeditated poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal — increasing his pressure on Moscow to satisfy still-angry members of Congress.

The US blamed Moscow for a brazen nerve agent attack on Sergei and his daughter, Yulia, on British soil in March 2018. It appears two Russian agents, posing as tourists in Salisbury, England, were the assailants. The Skripals both survived after intensive medical care, but Dawn Sturgess, who proved to be collateral damage in the strike, died.

A 1991 law, the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, requires that the US sanction a country for using chemical weapons, a move the Trump administration made last August. That same law says a second round of penalties must be imposed if there is no evidence that the offending nation stopped using those weapons, and the US has found no signs of the Russians ending their usage.

As a result, Trump signed an executive order on Thursday putting the second round of sanctions on Russia in response to the Skripal attack, which Moscow still denies having any involvement in.

On Friday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the new sanctions were regrettable and could damage already poor ties between Washington and Moscow. “I think that this is primarily connected to US domestic politics,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russia’ RT TV channel.

It’s long been US policy to reprimand nations for using chemical weapons, let alone for doing so in the UK, which is a staunch American ally and NATO member.

Trump, though, is loath to confront Moscow because he wants its relationship with Washington to improve. The president spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone this week, though it’s unclear if they discussed the forthcoming sanctions. The official White House readout said the conversation focused mostly on wildfires in Siberia. However, Trump did expel 60 Russians from the US last year because of the attack; other European nations took similar action.

It seems lawmakers were partly responsible for the president’s Friday decision. Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Michael McCaul (R-TX), the top two members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Trump on Monday pushing him to impose the new round of sanctions.

“We urge you to take immediate action to hold Russia fully accountable for its blatant use of a chemical weapon in Europe,” they wrote. Not doing so “is unacceptable and would necessitate that Congress take corrective action.”

That Congressional action is clearly no longer needed.