The Trump administration rolled out a new sanctions package against Russia on Thursday that for the first time addresses its meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and continued cyber attacks targeting the United States.
The Treasury Department in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Council and Department of Homeland Security sanctioned five Russian entities and 19 individuals, including 13 indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller last month. Speaking ahead of the announcement of the sanctions, US officials described Moscow's behaviour as "troubling", citing its continued attempts to disrupt western governments in the UK, in Ukraine, and by meddling in the 2016 US election.
They referred to renewed attempts by Russia to carry out cyber attacks in the United States, particularly the “NotPetya” attack last year that was targeted at the US energy grid and affected hospitals and shipping facilities.
The new sanctions were applied to the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and "Putin's chef" Yevgeniy Prigozhin. Both were indicted by the Justice Department last month as part of Mr Mueller's probe. The IRA is described as a "troll farm" and a part of Russia's propaganda effort to distribute fake news to help Mr Trump's presidential campaign.
The sanctions also apply to two Russian intelligence services, the Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and the Federal Security Service (FSB). The Treasury Department accused the GRU of being “directly involved” in 2016 election interference and “directly responsible” for the NotPetya attack. The FSB also carried a 2014 cyber attack that compromised millions of Yahoo accounts, it said.
The sanctions freeze any assets in the US and block any transactions in the country or through the US channels.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the US government was "confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in US elections, destructive cyber attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure”.
But because these entities and individuals have been previously sanctioned by the US, the effect of the latest sanctions is in question.
“They don’t mean much given that the Internet Research Agency, Mr Prigozhin and all of the dubious LLCs [limited liability companies] named in here were already indicted by Robert Mueller,” said Michael Weiss, a US expert who closely follows Russia.
"This is more a formality, although one could argue that the US Treasury is now accepting as fact the conclusions of the FBI [Mueller] investigation," Mr Weiss told The National.
Mr Trump had previously called Russian meddling “a hoax” and denies any collusion between his election campaign and Moscow.
US officials tried to draw a line between the political statements coming from Mr Trump and the Treasury actions, and referred to White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders for a comment on the president’s views.
The new sanctions meet requirements under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a law passed overwhelmingly by Congress last August.
While Democrats criticised the "long delayed" implementation of the law, Noah Rothman, a political analyst at Commentary magazine, said the new sanctions "were never ignored" by the Trump administration. "They followed the letter of the law, which allowed for a 120-day grace period."
Mr Rothman cautioned, however, that “all of this is for naught, unless President Donald Trump himself personally and unequivocally names the threat posed by the increasingly reckless Russian President Vladimir Putin” rather than sending a mixed signal by criticising the FBI and the probe.