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U.S. Senators Decry Decision To Hold Off On New Russia Sanctions


Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and 19 other Senate Democrats said on January 30 the failure to impose new sanctions was "unacceptable."

WASHINGTON -- U.S. senators have criticized President Donald Trump for not imposing new sanctions on Russia after his administration released a list of 210 officials and billionaires from the country's ruling elite, exposing them to scrutiny and potential future punitive measures.

Meanwhile, a former top U.S. State Department official closely involved in sanctions policy, slammed the new measures, in particular the so-called "oligarchs list," calling its contents and its roll-out "somewhere between puzzling and inexplicable."

In the letter sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and 19 other Senate Democrats said the failure by the Trump administration to impose new sanctions was "unacceptable."

The letter came after the U.S. Treasury Department released early on January 30 a list of 114 senior Russian political figures and 96 "oligarchs" who U.S. authorities say have gained wealth or power through association with President Vladimir Putin, who is set to secure six more years in the Kremlin in a March 18 election.

The list of Russian political figures and tycoons is the result of a 2017 law intended to increase pressure on Russia in response to Moscow's alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, its military intervention in Ukraine, and other actions that have caused U.S. concern.

But it has been criticized in the United States and abroad, with observers saying the list appeared to have been put together with little care.

"It also appears to have been insufficiently vetted," Daniel Fried, who helped coordinate U.S. sanctions policies across two administrations, said on January 31. "This was somewhere between puzzling and inexplicable."

Trump's administration has notified Congress that it will not impose new sanctions on Russia at this time.

However, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on January 30 that "in the near future, you'll see additional sanctions." He added that such sanctions could come "in the next several months, maybe a month."

Trump reluctantly signed the Counter America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) law in August after it was passed by an overwhelming majority in both chambers of the U.S. legislature. The law followed the assessment released in January 2017 by the country's intelligence community that said that Putin ordered a campaign aimed at influence the U.S. election.

The published list is part of the unclassified version of the so-called Kremlin Report, which was submitted to Congress on January 29 -- just ahead of a deadline set by CAATSA.

A senior State Department official told a press briefing that January 29 "was not a deadline to impose sanctions; it was actually a start date. It was the start of the race. It was the day on or after which we could start imposing sanctions if we make the determination here at the State Department of activity that falls under the provision."

In their letter, the 20 senators accused the administration of failing to do everything possible to deter any future foreign election interference and expressed "concern" that its policies on Russia "do not fully reflect the clear congressional intent described in the legislation."

"This is unacceptable," they wrote. "By imposing no new sanctions under CAATSA mandates, the U.S. remains vulnerable to an emboldened Russian government in advance of this November's congressional elections."

Some Republicans also expressed doubts over the administration's sanctions decision, with Senator Susan Collins calling it "perplexing."

"The one thing we know for sure already, is the Russians did attempt to meddle in our elections and not only should there be a price to pay in terms of sanctions but also we need to put safeguards in place right now for the elections for this year," she told CNN.

Putin called the report "an unfriendly act" that would "complicate the already grave situation that Russian-American relations are in and inflict damage, no doubt, on international relations as a whole."

But he signaled that Moscow's response would be muted, saying that it would be "utter stupidity to drive our relations down to zero."

U.S. intelligence agencies' conclusion that Putin had ordered a concerted hacking-and-propaganda campaign found that the effort was aimed at undermining faith in the U.S. electoral process, denigrating Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, and improving Trump's chances of winning.

That issue has cast a shadow over the Trump administration’s first year, as have congressional and FBI investigations into the meddling as well as interactions between Trump associates and Russian officials.

Four associates have been either indicted on, or pleaded guilty to, various charges including lying to FBI investigators. That includes Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

Trump denies there was any collusion and Putin has denied that Russia interfered in the election, despite what U.S. officials say is substantial evidence.

That cloud has stoked suspicion about all aspects of the administration’s policies toward Russia, even as it has largely continued a policy of pushing back against Moscow begun under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

"I think this was a tactical mess-up, which reflects some problems within the administration and, I think, an inability to understand how this rushed job would be received, but it does not mean that the American will to resist Russian aggression has dissipated,” Fried told the Atlantic Council.

"I think that the current, what I understand is a current sense of euphoria in the Kremlin may be misplaced,” he said.

With reporting by Reuters
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