Li Muzi/Zuma Press
WASHINGTON—The Trump administration said Monday that it is evaluating prospects for new sanctions against Russian entities and companies involved in Syria’s chemical-weapons program, a day after a top diplomat said Washington was ready to impose new punitive actions.
“We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future,“ White House spokeswoman
told reporters Monday. ”We’re evaluating, but nothing to announce right now.”
On Sunday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said new sanctions against Russia were imminent as part of the U.S. response to a suspected Syrian chemical-weapons attack on April 7. She said they would be announced on Monday by Treasury Secretary
“You will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down,” Ms. Haley said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “Secretary Mnuchin will be announcing those on Monday, if he hasn’t already. And they will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to [Syrian President
] and chemical weapons used.”
On Monday morning, the administration struck a different tone.
“The president has been clear that he’s going to be tough on Russia. But at the same time, he’d still like to have a good relationship with them,” Ms. Sanders said.
The nature of the relationship, she added, is “going to be determined by whether or not Russia decides if they want to be a better actor in this process or not.”
The sanctions threat came after U.S., French and British forces attacked Syrian alleged chemical-weapons sites Saturday, a reprisal for the suspected chemical-weapons attack, drawing criticism from Moscow, an ally of Mr. Assad.
The administration’s shifting comments left open the possibility of new sanctions against Russia, but Democratic lawmakers criticized the administration for not acting immediately, saying the decision appeared to put Mr. Trump out of step with his top aides.
“I am outraged that President Trump pulled back sanctions on Russia for its support of the Assad regime,”
Rep. Eliot Engel
(D., N.Y.), ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement. “This sends a message to governments around the world that they can support brutal, criminal behavior without serious consequences.”
Sanctions represent a policy tool to challenge the Kremlin for its support of the Assad regime without sparking a broader head-to-head military conflagration with a former Cold War adversary. In the strike against Syria’s alleged chemical-weapon facilities, the U.S. took care to ensure it didn’t directly target Russian military assets in the country, U.S. officials said.
Ms. Haley’s comments Sunday contrasted with a longstanding tenet of Treasury’s sanctions practices: Avoid telegraphing pending actions, so as to prevent targets from being able to pull their assets out of U.S. reach. Ms. Haley’s office declined to comment on Monday.
Moscow, meanwhile, is readying its own response to Washington’s most recent sanctions salvo. State Duma Chairman
said the Duma is preparing a bill on countermeasures against the U.S. and other countries’ “unfriendly actions,” according to Russian news agency Interfax.
Borrowing costs have spiked for Russian firms, a major problem for a nation that relies so heavily on foreign financing. Those fiscal troubles have been exacerbated by a falling ruble. Beyond the firms directly affected, other companies are taking a hit, as investors are concerned those firms could be next.
The sanctions constitute “undisguised attempts of unfair competition,” Kremlin press secretary
said Monday, according to Interfax. “We still do not see these sanctions as lawful, we see them as going against international law and WTO rules,” Mr. Peskov said.
The Trump administration has ratcheted up economic pressure on Moscow amid spiraling diplomatic tensions resulting from a series of events, including the Kremlin’s alleged intervention in U.S. elections, a nerve-agent attack in the U.K. on a former Russian double agent and his daughter, cyberattacks on critical U.S. infrastructure, Moscow’s military engagements in eastern Ukraine and its support of Mr. Assad.
—Peter Nicholas in Washington and James Marson in Moscow contributed to this article.
Write to Ian Talley at firstname.lastname@example.org