Faced with a new round of U.S.-sanctions over alleged chemical weapons use, Russia denounced the move as an “illegal” gesture that defied attempts by President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin aimed at improving relations during a recent summit.
“Of course, such decisions taken by the American side, are absolutely unfriendly,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, in discussing the new sanctions with reporters in Moscow on Thursday. “And it’s unlikely they’re in any way associated with the complicated but constructive atmosphere of the last meeting between the two presidents.”
The State Department announced the penalties on Wednesday — a response to the poisoning last March of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, in the British town of Salisbury.
While both Skripals survived the attack, the U.S. sided with Britain in determining Russia was responsible after investigators concluded the would-be assassins used a Soviet-era nerve toxin known as “Novichok.”
The attack prompted an initial wave of diplomatic expulsions between U.S.-Britain allies and Russia — including the tit-for-tat exit of 60 Russian and U.S. diplomats in March.
The poisoning case gained further traction in June when a British couple with no apparent ties to Russia died from an accidental encounter with a similar nerve agent in the nearby British town of Amesbury.
Dawn Sturgess, 44, later died in hospital.
The Kremlin has vehemently denied any involvement in the Salisbury and Amesbury incidents, and it did so again in lieu of new sanctions.
In a statement issued by its embassy in Washington, Russia called charges that Moscow employed chemical weapons “far fetched” — arguing the U.S. lacked evidence, and repeating demands for a new investigation into the poisoning.
While Kremlin spokesman Peskov suggested the Kremlin was still weighing how to respond to the sanctions, other Russian officials were less circumspect.
“The theatre of the absurd continues,” wrote Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia's first deputy permanent representative to the U.N., in a post to Twitter.
“No proofs, no clues, no logic, no presumption of innocence, just highly-likelies. Only one rule: blame everything on Russia, no matter how absurd and fake it is. Let us welcome the United Sanctions of America!
In turn, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakahrova promised Moscow already was preparing retaliatory measures.
Above all, Kremlin officials have sought to assure the public that the Russian economy is well primed to absorb additional penalties. It’s a benefit, they argue, of policies put in place amid a raft of Western sanctions imposed over Russian actions in Ukraine and alleged interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections.
“The financial system is rather robust.That’s obvious to everyone,” said Kremlin spokesman Peskov.
Despite assurances, the ruble fell to a two-year low, and shares of Russian companies likely affected by the sanctions — including several banks and Russia's national air carrier Aeroflot — dipped in value.
Looming behind the skid, the prospect of what U.S. officials warn could be “more draconian measures” should Russia fail to assuage U.S. government concerns over chemical agents that Moscow insists it never used.
Two Russia policies?
The latest U.S. sanctions against Moscow are all but certain to raise questions about the continuing gap between President Donald Trump’s open pursuit of detente with Russia and the often tougher stance taken by his own administration.
President Trump repeatedly has insisted “nobody is tougher on Russia than I am.” Yet the American leader was roundly criticized by members of both parties in Congress for what many perceived as an overly conciliatory performance at a summit meeting with Vladimir Putin leader in Helsinki last month. This included siding with the Russian leader over U.S. intelligence regarding alleged Kremlin interference in the 2016 elections that brought Trump to the White House.
Even as rumors of impending new sanctions swirled in the media, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul — a supporter of Trump’s efforts to engage Russia — announced he had delivered a letter from President Trump to Putin during meetings with Russian officials in Moscow earlier this week.
According to a statement issued by Paul, Trump’s letter focused on increased cooperation between the former Cold War rivals, calling on the U.S. and Russia to work together on “countering terrorism, enhancing legislative dialogue and resuming cultural exchanges.”
In turn, U.S. State Department officials insisted the new sanctions were triggered automatically by longstanding U.S. policy regarding the use of chemical weapons by state actors.
Few in Moscow seemed to believe it, though, asserting that U.S.-Russian relations were now fully captive to internal political fighting over the 2016 election and multiple investigations into possible wrongdoing by the Trump campaign and Kremlin-linked officials.
“In the American internal political conflict, Russia is not so much a reason, as an instrument,” insisted Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy analyst, discussing Washington’s continued use of sanctions, during an interview on Echo of Moscow radio.
“In this situation, building relations is impossible to even speak about.”