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What new U.S. sanctions for Skripal attack say to Russia

The Trump administration on Wednesday announced new sanctions on Russia in response to Moscow’s use of a nerve agent on a former Russian double-agent and his daughter earlier this year in Britain. Russia has denied any involvement. William Brangham gets reaction from former State Department official Daniel Fried.

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  • William Brangham:

     But first, the Trump administration yesterday announced new sanctions on Russia. They’re in response to Moscow’s use of a nerve agent on a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter. The attack occurred earlier this year in Britain. Russia has denied any involvement.

    Daniel Fried had a 40-year career in the Foreign Service. He served on the National Security Council for both Republican and Democratic presidents, and during the Obama administration, he crafted U.S. sanctions against Russia when it invaded Ukraine.

    Welcome back to the “NewsHour.”

  • Daniel Fried:

     Thanks for having me.

  • William Brangham:

     So how big a deal with these new sanctions on Russia?

  • Daniel Fried:

     It’s significant that we are making the Russians pay a price for their nerve gas attack in the U.K.

    The sanctions themselves aren’t huge. They’re modest to moderate, and — in the first round. There will be — there will have to be a second round, or probably be a second round.

  • William Brangham:

     The second round, these are the ones that could end up being imposed right around our Election Day in November.

  • Daniel Fried:

     Yes.

    The way the law is written, the first round of sanctions comes quickly, and then there is a three-month pause. And if the offending country has not stopped or given us assurances that it won’t do it again, the administration has to apply new sanctions from a menu.

    That menu goes from light to very heavy. So the Trump administration is going to have choices to make.

  • William Brangham:

     So there is some flexibility that they have to go very strong on these or to go softer on those?

  • Daniel Fried:

     That’s right.

    And there are waiver provisions in the law. So, the administration will not be boxed in and forced to do something stupid. I think that they’re going to judge the additional sanctions based on what Russia is doing, but it’s a — it’s a significant step. The Russian markets took a hit today, and that’s because sanctions are a game of expectations.

    Are they going up? Are they going down? Is the administration determined? And I think the Russians are beginning to realize that whatever deal or arrangement they thought they had or believed they might have with President Trump, the U.S. administration is acting in this area and others to push back on Russian aggression, which is a good thing.

  • William Brangham:

     So is it your sense then that these sanctions will have an impact and actually change Russian behavior?

  • Daniel Fried:

     That — I don’t want to be extravagant and suggest that suddenly the Russians are going to see these sanctions and retreat.

    But certainly it shows that the Russian nerve gas attack in the U.K. is not going to be ignored, that the United States stepped up and acted in solidarity with the U.K., with a European ally. That’s a good thing. And it’s an important lesson to the Russians, that they don’t have a free-fire zone to start murdering their political opponents around the world while we stand by.

  • William Brangham:

     This, of course, is coming in the midst of a very uncertain relationship with the Russians. Even put aside Ukraine and Syria, put aside concerns over past meddling in our elections and perhaps future meddling in our elections.

    This has got to be a very difficult moment for the administration to figure out how to respond.

  • Daniel Fried:

     Well, there are two levels of difficulty.

    One, it is difficult to know the best way to push back against Russian aggression, especially when it’s in so many areas. The Russians invade their neighbor Ukraine. They interfere in our elections. They try to assassinate people they don’t like around the world. They’re engaged in various corrupt activities all over the place.

    So it’s hard to know how to work — how to figure — it’s hard to figure out how best to deal with this challenge. But there’s a second challenge. You have an administration which is acting one way, and a president who is speaking in an entirely different way.

    And I have never seen this before.

  • William Brangham:

     You’re describing the sort of cleavage between the administration saying, we’re going to impose sanctions, we’re going to crack down, we’re going to sanction the Russians.

    And yet the president seems completely unwilling to publicly say to Russia, say to Vladimir Putin, stop.

  • Daniel Fried:

     Before that notorious press conference in Helsinki, when President Trump met President Putin, President Trump said publicly that the problems in U.S.-Russian relations were largely the fault of America.

    He blamed America first. I have never seen a president do that, ever. We didn’t cause these problems. Vladimir Putin did. And to have the president go into his meeting with Putin by throwing rocks at his own country is something I have never seen.

    I have seen divided governments, a State Department, Defense Department, NSC all have a different position, everybody wrangles. Sure, normal.

    But to have everybody lined up on one side, and the president on another side, I don’t know what to make of that. It is, let’s say, strange.

  • William Brangham:

    Daniel Fried of the Atlantic Council, thank you very much.

  • Daniel Fried:

    My pleasure.

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