The US State Department has announced the move after it determined Russia used the nerve agent Novichok on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on August 9, 2018

On 8 August The State Department announced it had concluded the Russian government had “used chemical or biological weapons” on the Skripals in violation of international law. Under the Chemical and Biological Weapons and Warfare Elimination Act, passed by US congress in 1991, that finding triggers the imposition of sanctions against Russia.

According to a statement from Department Spokesperson Heather Neuart, the sanctions will take effect on or around 22 August.

The deadline for the US to impose sanctions had actually passed and in June, Republican Ed Royce criticised the President for failing to take timely action.

The new sanctions will include exports of sensitive electronic components. The State Department warned that additional sanctions could be imposed within 90 days if Russia did not give the US assurances it had stopped using chemical weapons.

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious on a bench in the UK town of Salisbury back in March. After initially both being in a critical condition, they later recovered and were discharged from hospital.

Another woman in Salisbury, Dawn Sturgess, died after she was exposed to the nerve agent. Tragically, the poison seems to have been passed to her when her husband Charlie Rowley picked up and gave her what he believed was a cosmetics bottle.

Russia’s use of Novichok was condemned as barbaric

Shortly after, the UK Foreign Office released a statement saying: “The strong international response to the use of a chemical weapon on the streets of Salisbury sends an unequivocal message to Russia that its provocative, reckless behaviour will not go unchallenged.” A now-deleted tweet from 22 March stated: “Analysis by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology laboratory at Porton Down made clear that this was a military grade nerve agent produced in Russia.”

The British Home Secreary Sajid Javid condemned the use of the nerve agent as “barbaric and inhumane”.

A State Department official said it marked only the third time the US had determined a country had employed chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals, triggering the sanctions. Syria and North Korea were the subject of sanctions after the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-nam had nerve agent VX applied to his face at Kuala Lumpur which caused his death.

These sanctions are the second suite of embargoes the US has imposed on Russia this year. In June, the US imposed sanctions on five Russian companies and three Russian nationals for engaging in cyberattacks on behalf of the Russian military and intelligence.

US President Donald Trump is yet to comment on the sanctions. Nicholas Burns, a former US Ambassador to NATO, told Australia’s ABC the sanctions would have more symbolic power if Trump voiced his support for them.

What will the US sanctions mean for Russia?

The economic measures will significantly curtail Russia’s ability to procure engines, circuits and other items which play a role in national security. Currently, such purchases need to be approved on a case-by-case basis but they will be illegal once the sanctions are put in place. There will be some exemptions to the sanctions with limited purchases related to commercial air travel and space flight to be allowed.

A senior State Department official said the first tranche of the US sanctions could impact “potentially a very great sweep of the Russian economy.” He estimated the companies affected make up some 70% of the Russian workforce.

“It is possible the trade affected could reach hundreds of millions of dollars,” the senior official said. He added that “it also depends on what Russian entities apply to export.”

The attack on Skripal also led to a worsening of diplomatic relations between the US and Russia, despite Trump’s high-profile and highly contentious meeting with Putin. Trump ordered the explusion of more than 60 Russian diplomats in the wake of the attack. Russia then retalliated but recalling many of its own foreign diplomats.

What happened to the perpetrators of the attack on Sergei Skripal?

Meanwhile, the UK is closing in on the suspects of the Salisbury attack and is set to submit an extradition request to Russia for the two Russian nationals it believes poisoned the Skipals and, presumably accidentally, locals Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess.

A UK intelligence post in Cyprus allegedly picked up a coded message stating: “The package has been delivered” after the poisoning.

Hundreds of police and intelligence officers have been involved in the investigation.