(CNSNews.com) – Moscow accused the Trump administration Thursday of using an alleged nerve gas attack in Britain earlier this year as a “far-fetched pretext” to impose new sanctions on Russia, accusing it of intentionally seeking to worsen bilateral relations.
In line with legislation enacted in the early 1990s, the U.S. is imposing restrictions on the export of sensitive technology to Russia. A senior State Department official said Wednesday that if “remedial” action is not taken within 90 days, a second, “more draconian” set of sanctions will take effect.
The steps required to avoid those more severe measures include Russia’s renunciation of chemical and biological weapons use, providing access to facilities for international inspectors “or other reliable means” to verify its commitment, and “restitution for victims,” the official explained in a background briefing.
Russia has denied any involvement in the nerve gas attack, and foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova indicated it does not intend to meet the requirements of the U.S. law.
“As a condition for lifting sanctions the United States is making the demands which are unacceptable for us,” she told a briefing.
“And this is the first stage. They threaten us with further increasing the sanctions pressure. So, the U.S. is intentionally choosing the path of a further deterioration of bilateral relations, which have been nearly reduced to zero thanks to its efforts.”
The measures being taken under the Chemical and Biological Weapons and Warfare Elimination Act follow the attempted murder in March of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the city of Salisbury.
In July, British woman Dawn Sturgess died after exposure to the same toxic substance identified by British scientists as having been used on the Skripals, the Russian-made agent Novichok. The Skripals survived, as did two other infected men – a friend of Sturgess and a police officer who responded to the Skripal attack.
Sturgess’ death turned the police investigation into a murder inquiry. It was reported recently that investigators have identified suspects from video footage, and the Guardian early this week reported that the government will soon apply for the extradition of two Russians suspected of responsibility.
Britain accuses the Russian state of being behind the assassination bid, a stance supported by the U.S. and other allies. The U.S. in March expelled 60 Russian diplomats – suspected spies – joining Canada and more than a dozen European countries in a coordinated response to the attack.
Zakharova said the Skripal affair “was chosen as a far-fetched pretext” for the latest U.S. action against Russia.
“Instead of engaging in search for the ways to improve bilateral ties, as was discussed at the summit [between President Trump and President Vladimir Putin] in Helsinki on July 16, the U.S. administration has hurled all effort into aggravating the situation,” the TASS state news agency quoted her as saying.
“The intention of those behind a new round of hyping up the Skripal case is obvious: They seek to keep afloat this advantageous-for-them anti-Russian topic, by hook or by crook, as an instrument for demonizing Russia.”
Zakharova said U.S. expressions of a willingness to improve relations while taking such steps was “barefaced hypocrisy.”
She also signaled that Russia will take reciprocal actions.
‘New and horrific 21st century norm’
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt applauded the move.
“If we are going to stop chemical and biological weapons – including nerve agents – becoming a new and horrific 21st cent[ury] norm states like Russia that use or condone their use need to know there is a price to pay,” he tweeted. “Thank you USA for standing firm with us on this.”
U.S.-Russia relations have drawn significant attention since Trump took office, due to intelligence agencies’ evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and Democrats’ accusations of “collusion” between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Trump’s critics also question his willingness to challenge Putin on a range of issues.
The sanctions were announced on Wednesday, exactly 90 days ahead of the midterm congressional elections. However, the State Department said they will only take effect on or around August 22, after a 15-day congressional notification period. That pushes the 90-day deadline for Russian compliance to just before Thanksgiving.
The imposition of sanctions under the 1991 law requires a presidential determination that a foreign government “has used chemical or biological weapons in violation of international law or has used lethal chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals.”
If three months after sanctions are imposed the accused government has not taken the prescribed measures, the legislation authorizes further steps – including a suspension of the right of airlines owned or controlled by that government to fly to and from the United States.
Russia’s national carrier Aeroflot flies in and out of JFK, Washington Dulles, Los Angeles and Miami.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who wrote to the administration in March and again in July to press for action under the law, welcomed the decision.
“Vladimir Putin must know that we will not tolerate his deadly acts, or his ongoing attacks on our democratic process,” he said.
According to the State Department, sanctions have only twice before been effected under the legislation – in 2013 after more than 1,400 Syrians were killed in a chemical attack blamed on the Assad regime; and earlier this year, in response to the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother, who died after being exposed to the nerve agent VX at Kuala Lumpur international airport in Feb. 2017.