The Trump administration on Wednesday ordered new sanctions on Russia after determining that Moscow used a nerve agent in an attack on a former Soviet spy and his daughter who are now British citizens.
The use of chemical or biological weapons, which is a violation of international law, triggers sanctions under U.S. law. Washington had previously expelled roughly 60 Russia diplomats in response to a nerve-agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal.
"Following the use of a ‘Novichok’ nerve agent in an attempt to assassinate UK citizen Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal," the United States has determined that Russia "has used chemical or biological weapons in violation of international law or has used lethal chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals," the State Department said in a statement.
After a two-week congressional notification period, the sanctions are set to take effect on Aug. 22, 2018.
The sanctions are designed to target electronic devices and some large equipment, including aircraft gas turbine engines, with an exemption for equipment used for mutual U.S.-Russia space exploration. Those materials already are restricted on a case-by-case basis, but if Russia does not provide assurances that it has stopped using chemical and biological weapons and allows international monitors inside the country to conduct inspections, within 90 days a more severe round of sanctions kicks in.
The second round would be more punitive and could include the suspension of Aeroflot flights into the United States.
A State Department official denied that the actions undermined President Trump's continued assertions that he would like to improve relations with Russia.
"This is a question of implementing laws Congress put in place," the official told reporters on a conference call Wednesday afternoon. "At the same time, we are quite committed to working to maintain relations—we work on cooperative things where it is necessary to do so."
Under the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, the president must determine whether a country has used chemical or biological weapons in violation of international law or used "lethal biological weapons against its own nationals," the State Department said.
Once that determination is made, the president has no choice but to impose sanctions unless he determines that it is not in the security interest of the United States and decides to waive the mandate.
Trump has not shied away from condemning the Skripal attack, but critics have questioned why it has taken the U.S. government so long to impose the new sanctions in response.
A State Department official Wednesday said the delay in issuing the sanctions did not reflect any hesitation on the part of the Trump administration. Instead, he said there were also delays in triggering the same type of U.S. sanctions after the two most recent chemical or biological attacks, one in Sryia by the Assad regime and another perpetrated by North Korea.
"In both these cases, the deadlines were not met—it's more the norm for us to be late," the official said. "We took our time and did our homework right."
In March, two weeks after the attack, Trump signed a statement, along with British, French and German leaders, blaming Russia. Sergei Skripal is a former Russian military office who was convicted of spying for Britain.
The statement called on Russia to "address all questions" related to the attack and provide "full and complete disclosure" of its Novichok nerve agent production program. British Prime Minister Theresa May also pressed Trump to address the poisonings when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month.
The White House has not said whether the poisonings came up during his meeting with Putin.