The United States says Russia has failed to make "significant efforts" to battle human trafficking, placing it on a blacklist that leaves open the possibility of U.S. sanctions.
For the second straight year the United States gave Russia the lowest rating in its annual human-trafficking report
, which the U.S. State Department issued on June 20.
Moscow reacted angrily when it was downgraded to the "tier 3" classification in last year's report, accusing the United States of using an "unacceptable" methodology in its assessment and saying "unfriendly steps" would provoke "proportionate retaliation."
Russia was among the 23 countries handed a "tier 3" designation in this year's report, including the governments of Iran and Uzbekistan, both of which were listed in the same category last year.
The Trafficking in Persons Report is one of several annual assessments issued by the department on human rights-related topics, but it is unusual in that it ranks countries, which can ruffle diplomatic feathers.
It is based on the actions governments take rather than the scale of the problem in their country. Globally, more than 20 million people are believed affected by human trafficking.
Labor trafficking remained the most significant human-trafficking problem within Russia’s borders, according to the 2014 report, which said many of the millions of labor migrants in Russia "experienced exploitative labor conditions characteristic of trafficking cases."
Employers of construction projects at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, for example, "withheld pay, disregarded contracts, and seized passports and work permits to keep workers in conditions of exploitation," the document states, citing a Human Rights Watch report.
A "tier 3" designation can result in sanctions such as the withdrawal of nonhumanitarian aid or assistance unrelated to foreign trade, as well as funding for government employees' participation in cultural and education programs with the countries in question.
Luis CdeBaca, the ambassador-at-large to the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said that U.S. President Barack Obama last year "decided it was in the U.S. national interest and would promote the purposes of the trafficking law to waive sanctions" against several "tier 3" countries -- including Russia and Uzbekistan.
But the White House will examine possible fresh sanctions based on this year’s report, CdeBaca told reporters in a June 20 teleconference.
"You certainly wouldn't want to halt...any assistance that's going specifically to increasing the capacity of our partners in those governments to fight human trafficking or to help its victims," CdeBaca said.
He added that the United States has had "a good dialogue over the years on human trafficking with our Russian counterparts" and that U.S. officials are "looking forward to what we hope will be some efforts in the coming year."
Pakistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina were downgraded from the "tier 2" and placed on a the so-called "tier 2 watch list" for countries that saw a sharp rise in victims of sex trafficking and forced labor and which failed to provide evidence of increased efforts to tackle the problem.
This year's report, meanwhile, saw Afghanistan lifted to the "tier 2" classification -- up from the "tier 2 watch list" in the previous report.
"We see new commitments to doing work," CdeBaca said of Afghanistan and other countries lifted to the "tier 2" classification.
"We see this notion of cases being done in the first place or victims being helped in new ways," he said. "And it's certainly something that is welcome."
With reporting by AP