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First package of US sanctions against Russia over Skripals affair takes effect

The restrictions may harm Russia’s oil and gas processing industry, experts said

WASHINGTON, August 22. /TASS/. US Administration on Wednesday, August 22, is taking new sanctions against Russia over its alleged involvement in the March 4 poisoning of former GRU Colonel Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, near London. The Department of State argues Russia is in breach of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991.

Draconian measures

As the US Department of State said on August 8, the first package of sanctions applies to dual use products, the export to Russia of all sensitive goods and know-how related with US national security and also electronics, components and technologies for the oil and gas industry.

"We intend to impose sanctions against the Russian Federation in a number of respects, the most significant of which is the imposition of a presumption of denial for all national security sensitive goods or technologies that are controlled by the Department of Commerce pursuant to the Export Administration Regulations. These goods are currently subject to a license - a case-by-case license determination, but we are - henceforth, when these sanctions go into effect, we will be presumptively denying such applications," the Department of State said.

A high-ranking Department of State official said that Washington was making "a number of carve-outs" to these sanctions to allow the continuation of certain foreign assistance; exports for space flight activities, safety of commercial passenger aviation, and "purely commercial end users for civilian end uses"; and perhaps other activities.

Alongside this the act envisages the possibility of far harsher sanctions to be taken in three months’ time. The second package of restrictions envisages a downgrade of bilateral diplomatic relations or their complete suspension, an overall ban on the export of US goods to Russia except for foods and on the United States’ import of Russian goods, including oil and oil products, refusal of permission to any planes of Russian government-controlled air carriers to land in the United States and Washington’s veto on all loans to Moscow from international financial organizations.

The US Department of State refrained from disclosing what evidence or intelligence information was used for making an unambiguous conclusion Russia was involved in the poisoning incident in Salisbury. At the same time the US authorities said they would not like to resort to the second phase of restrictions. For that Russia must present convincing arguments it will not violate international chemical weapons legislation and also permit onsite inspections by the United Nations and independent foreign observers in order to guarantee the government does not use chemical weapons in violation of international law.

Declaration of trade war?

In response to these measures Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that further sanctions against Russia could be interpreted as declaration of trade war. US actions, he said, would have to be countered with economic, political and other measures, if need be.

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Washington’s decision on new sanctions against Moscow was dissonant with the constructive climate of the summit meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Donald Trump held in Helsinki. He said that Russia retained the hope for building a constructive relationship with the United States and other Western countries, but regretted that quite often its partners failed to reciprocate. On August 13 Peskov said Putin had not issued instructions yet to draft a new package of retaliatory measures in response to Washington’s announcement of new sanctions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the US Department of State’s charges as absurd. He said "everybody who is a little bit familiar with the so-called Skripals affair understands the absurdity of the statement contained in the official document of the US Department of State."

The Russian embassy in Washington, which was the first to have been informed about the new restrictions described the sanctions as draconian. The embassy said that the United States on the excuse of confidentiality refused to explain the causes behind its decision to impose new restrictions, while no facts or proof that would back up the accusations were offered.

Experts’ opinions

The sanctions the US Department of State has announced may harm Russia’s oil and gas processing industry, say experts polled by TASS. If the threats materialize, oil refineries may have to curtail their upgrade programs. Also, the sanctions may hinder the development of domestic technologies. On the other hand, US measures will not halt the refineries or cause any effect on the price of gasoline, analysts believe.

"The ban on the import of oil and gas equipment may have adverse effects on the ability of Russian companies to push ahead with upgrading their oil refineries and petro chemistry and gas chemistry diversification programs," says Fitch analyst Dmitry Marinichenko. In general the economic damage from such sanctions is hard to estimate at the moment, he added.

Analyst Andrei Bystritsky, of the international discussion club Valdai, believes that the new portion of anti-Russian sanctions stems from internal contradictions in the United States and the fear of losing world influence. He believes that Washington selected Russia as its foreign foe on purpose. An external threat, he remarks, can serve as a universal excuse and as a plausible argument for urging greater unity. Bystritsky sees the root cause for such an approach in what he describes as "phantom pains, the legacy of the Cold War and the many years of rivalry between the socialist and capitalist models."

The head of Russia’s national organization of small and medium businesses OPORA Russia, Alexander Kalinin, believes that tighter US sanctions against Russia in the long term may trigger the collapse of the US financial system and a financial crisis. He hopes that the United States will be able to estimate all likely effects to eventually refrain from tightening sanctions. In that case Russia will not have to retaliate.

Skripal case

On March 4, 2018 Sergei Skripal, 66, convicted in Russia of spying for Britain, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were affected by a nerve agent in Salisbury, near London, if the British version of the incident is to be believed. London later claimed that this substance had allegedly been developed in Russia and for that reason accused Moscow of complicity. Russia strongly dismissed these speculations, saying that programs for making such a chemical agent had never existed in the Soviet Union or Russia. Britain’s military chemical laboratory failed to identify the origin of the chemical agent that poisoned the Skripals.

Without presenting any proof London expelled 23 Russian diplomats and introduced a number of other anti-Russian measures. Moscow retaliated by asking as many British embassy staffers to leave for home and ordered the closure of the British consulate in St. Petersburg and termination of the British Council’s activity in Russia.