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US targets Russian elite with new set of sanctions

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump during a photo session of world leaders on the closing day of the 25th APEC Summit on Nov. 11, 2017 in Da Nang, Vietnam. (Metzel Mikhail/TASS/Zuma Press/TNS)
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In the latest sign of plummeting relations with Moscow, the Trump administration slapped new sanctions Friday on seven Russian oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin, including President Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law, for what a U.S. official called “attacks to subvert Western democracies.”

The administration’s long-delayed move against Russia’s ruling elite, mandated by Congress last year to punish Moscow for its meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, also included targeted sanctions against 12 Russian companies and 17 senior government officials.

The direct assault on Putin’s inner circle seemed to signal an end, at least for now, to President Donald Trump’s persistent efforts to revive moribund U.S. relations with Moscow despite growing warnings by U.S. intelligence officials that the Kremlin will try to interfere in the November election.

The blacklist was issued a week after the United States and two dozen other countries expelled about 150 Russian diplomats, alleged to be intelligence operatives, in retaliation for the nerve gas poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in southern England last month.

Putin’s government, which has denied responsibility for the attack, responded by expelling a similar number of U.S. and other diplomats in the kind of crude tit-for-tat clash not seen since the Cold War. Dozens of U.S. diplomats and their families left Moscow on Thursday.

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Trump has been reluctant to publicly criticize Putin, even inviting him to the White House in a phone call on March 20, although no summit has been scheduled. Trump did not publicly mention the new sanctions on Friday.

But the White House took a stronger line Friday, signaling that the olive branch has been withdrawn.

“What we would like to see is the totality of the Russian behavior change,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, told reporters.

Asked whether Trump agreed, Sanders said the president “has signed off and directed these actions. I think that that speaks volumes, actually, on how the president feels.”

A senior administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said Trump seeks a “better relationship” with Russia. “That can only happen when Russia curbs its aggressive behavior. Actions have consequences.”

The abruptly tougher tone by the White House was previewed this week in a speech by H.R. McMaster, the outgoing national security advisor.

“So for too long some nations have looked the other way in the face of these threats,” he said Tuesday at the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank. “Russia brazenly and implausibly denies its actions. And we have failed to impose sufficient costs.”

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The push comes as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III investigates Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign, and any potential illegal ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian authorities. Mueller recently obtained criminal indictments against 13 Russians, including several of those on the latest blacklist.

“Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government’s destabilizing activities,” Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said.

Mnuchin criticized Putin’s government for engaging in “a range of malign activity around the globe,” including its occupation of Crimea and military operations in eastern Ukraine, its military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in that country’s brutal civil war, as well as “attempting to subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities.”

In March, the administration levied sanctions against 16 Russian entities and individuals, as well as Russian intelligence agencies and officials. The new measures stand out because they go after the pocketbooks of some of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen, including some of Putin’s closest advisers and supporters.

They include Oleg Deripaska, a 50-year-old metals magnate said to be worth $5.8 billion. Deripaska had business ties with Paul Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign chairman for several months in 2016. Manafort has been indicted on charges of money laundering, bank fraud and conspiracy. He has pleaded not guilty.

Also on the list is 36-year-old Kirill Shamalov, a petrochemical executive whose fortune reportedly soared to nearly $1.5 billion after he married Putin’s daughter Katerina in 2012. Recent unconfirmed reports suggest the marriage has collapsed.

Among the businesses sanctioned is a state-owned weapons company that supplied military equipment to the government in Syria, which Moscow backs. The sanctions bar the individuals or entities from using U.S. financial systems or doing business with any U.S. citizens or companies, and freezes any assets they may have in the United States.

According to a White House statement, the Trump administration has taken a broad array of steps to confront “destabilizing and malicious behavior” by Russia.

They include export controls against two companies working with Russia’s missile program, charges against three Russians for the 2014 hack of Yahoo and sanctions against 100 targets in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and military operations in Ukraine.

Shortly before he left office, President Barack Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and closed two Russian compounds, in New York and Maryland, that were allegedly used for intelligence gathering. Those sites remain shuttered.

Speaking in Moscow on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained about the increasingly hostile U.S. stance toward Russia but expressed hope that Trump and Putin could conduct a “broad dialogue” as long as it does not “fall victim to domestic political intrigues” in Washington.

U.S. intelligence officials have publicly warned since the fall of 2016 that Russia’s government was conducting what it calls active measures against the U.S. political system, including aggressive hacking, use of social media and other tactics.

Adm. Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, told Congress this year that the U.S. government had not acted strongly enough to deter future meddling from Moscow.

“I believe that President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that, there’s little price to pay here and therefore I can continue this activity,” Rogers told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February.

Trump has acknowledged Russian meddling in the 2016 election, but insisted it had no effect on the voting. As recently as March 6, he appeared to deflect blame from Moscow, however.

“Certainly, there was meddling and probably there was meddling from other countries and maybe other individuals,” he said.

On Friday, lawmakers from both parties, including some who have complained about Trump’s soft approach to Putin, praised the sanctions on the Russian leader’s top backers.

“The United States must press forward with a broader strategy to deter and, if necessary, defeat Russian aggression and counter Russian malign influence activities,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “Anything less will only encourage Putin to continue attacking us, our allies, and democracies around the world.”

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© 2018 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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