The Trump White House has loosened financial sanctions against Russia’s powerful security agency that the Obama administration had imposed as punishment for Russia’s meddling in November’s presidential election and for Russia’ 2014 annexation of Crimea.
The administration downplayed the importance of the action, but the decision drew fire from Democrats and raised eyebrows among Republicans who oppose lifting any sanctions against the Russians.
“U.S. intelligence agencies have thoroughly detailed the Russian security services’ brazen assault on American democracy in support of candidate Donald Trump,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “Less than two weeks after walking into the White House, President Trump lifts sanctions on the Russian Security Service. Vladimir Putin’s thugs meddle with an American election, and President Trump gives them a thank you present.”
Trump had said for months that he was considering lifting sanctions imposed against Russia for its annexation of Crimea, and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway reiterated that sentiment last week.
But the new order allowing U.S. companies to sell encryption and other cyber-technology to the agency, known by its Russian initials as the FSB, caught many by surprise. The FSB is the successor agency to the KGB, the Soviet-era spy agency, and its role in the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s computers, the theft of emails from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, and their publication by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks has been controversial since last summer.
Any sale by U.S. companies of encryption and other cyber-technology to Russian business must go through the FSB, which gives licenses to Russian companies. Some officials said that the new Treasury Department finding was simply adjusting the sanction to have less impact on American businesses.
“On the one hand, you can at look at this as fixing one thing that they didn’t get quite right when they came out of the gate in December,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former senior adviser at the U.S. Department of the Treasury under Obama. “On the other hand, you can look at this as the administration just basically permitted Russian firms to get access to encryption that they didn’t have access to before.”
Trump denied the administration was easing sanctions. “I haven’t eased anything,” he said after meeting with Harley Davidson executives Thursday.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the move a “regular course of action” that the Treasury does often after sanctions are imposed. He said that it’s common after sanctions are put in place to go back and “look at specific carve-outs for different industries or products and services.”
The sanction against cyber technology stems to 2014, when the Obama administration imposed it following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The sanction was expanded in December at the same time the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian officials and closed a pair of Russian-owned compounds that served as retreats for Russian diplomats in the United States.
While U.S. authorities downplayed the significance, Russia’s English-language media took the opposite tact.
RT, Russia’s government-owned news outlet, called the move an easing of sanctions and quoted Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has saying the United States never adopts sanctions that infringe on its own needs.
“Washington has so far offered no solid proof for the allegations,” RT said, referring to the claims that Russia meddled in the U.S. election.