Britain’s top diplomat praised President Trump for increasingly strong sanctions against Russia and called on Europeans to match his efforts, whether in response to a nerve agent attack in England last spring, election interference or the annexation of Crimea.
Russia’s “aggressive and malign behavior undermines the international order that keeps us safe,” Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Tuesday in a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “Of course we must engage with Moscow, but we must also be blunt. Russia’s foreign policy under President [Vladimir] Putin has made the world a more dangerous place.”
Trump has a “very different style of politics,” including his prolific use of social media, and has engaged in dialogue with the Russian leader, Hunt said. But “I think it’s very important to look at what he does as well as what he says.”
“What you see is an approach to foreign policy that is . . . absolutely focused on upholding the international order,” Hunt said. “If you look at his actions, he’s actually willing to be very tough, tougher in fact that many of his predecessors.”
While Trump’s admiring outreach toward Putin has raised bipartisan concerns in this country, Hunt’s assessment echoes the administration’s own emphasis on deeds rather than words. It comes at a time when Britain, following passage of a 2016 referendum calling for withdrawal from the European Union, is seeking reassurance in closer trade relations with the United States.
Asked Monday whether he would consider lifting a range of current sanctions against Russia, Trump said: “No. I haven’t thought about it. But no, I’m not considering it at all.”
“I would consider it if they do something that would be good for us,” he said in an interview with Reuters. But “we have a lot of things we can do good for each other,” he said, mentioning Syria and Ukraine without elaboration.
Trump said Putin “never brought up” the sanctions issue during a two-hour meeting the two leaders had without aides last month in Helsinki. In the interview, Trump also again raised questions about Russian responsibility for election interference, saying that “if it was Russia,” the ongoing special-council investigation of Russia and Trump “played right into the Russians’ hands.”
A. Wess Mitchell, the administration’s top diplomat for Europe, appeared more certain of Russian responsibility Tuesday, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Putin was bent on ripping apart the social fabric of the United States.
“Putin’s thesis is that the American Constitution is an experiment that will fail if challenged in the right way from within,” Mitchell said during a hearing. “Putin wants to break apart the American republic, not by influencing an election or two but by systematically inflaming the fault lines that exist within our society.”
In his speech, Hunt pointed to the administration’s expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats to punish Moscow for the use of a military-grade nerve agent in an unsuccessful attempt to murder Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy living in Salisbury, England, with his daughter. The United States, he said, acted even before the rest of Europe, he said.
“Today the United Kingdom asks its allies to go further by calling on the European Union to ensure its sanctions against Russia are comprehensive and that we truly stand shoulder to shoulder with the U.S.,” Hunt said. “That means calling out and responding to transgressions with one voice wherever and whenever they occur, from the streets of Salisbury to the heart of Crimea,” which Russia unilaterally annexed from Ukraine.
While all 28 members of the European Union joined to condemn the Salisbury attack, some members — including governments in Italy and Greece — have called for Europe to develop closer relations with Russia rather than pushing it away.
James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said the European Union was reluctant to match the United States’ tougher sanctions in part because the bloc is “far from united” on what its response to Russia should be.
The European Union is “more exposed to Russia” than the United States, given its geography and economic ties, Nixey said. “It is more worried about the effect of the E.U. economy and the severity of the Russian response.”
Russia has denied involvement in the Salisbury attack, which Sergei and Yulia Skripal survived. Another victim, Dawn Sturgess, later died after handling a perfume bottle that British investigators said held residue of the Russian nerve agent known as Novichok.
This week, Trump is due to impose additional sanctions, mandated under a 1991 law to punish the use of chemical and biological weapons, followed by even harsher measures within 90 days if Russia does not acknowledge and destroy such weapons and allow international inspections.
Responding to Hunt, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that “our British colleagues have pretty high self-esteem.” Despite Britain’s plans to leave the European Union, Lavrov said at a news conference in Sochi, it was “trying to dictate foreign policy to the E.U.”
“Now it turns out that London wants to dictate foreign policy with regard to Russia to Washington, as well,” he said.
The visit here by Hunt, who served for many years as Britain’s health minister, is his first since becoming foreign secretary in July. He replaced Boris Johnson, the Brexit hard-liner who resigned in anger over the soft, pro-business strategy pursued by Prime Minister Theresa May in leaving the European Union.
In addition to punishment for the Salisbury attack, the Trump administration separately imposed two new sets of sanctions Tuesday against Russian companies related to North Korea and to Russian intelligence.
The Treasury Department levied sanctions on two companies based in Vladivostok for using their Russia-flagged ships to conduct ship-to-ship transfers of oil to ships bound for North Korea. Such ship-to-ship transfers are prohibited under United Nations Security Council resolutions.
The Treasury Department also targeted two companies that supplied underwater diving equipment to Russian government agencies, including the Federal Security Service (FSB), which has been under sanctions since 2016.
Meanwhile, Sigal P. Mandelker, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, told Congress that U.S. sanctions against Russia overall have had a significant impact on the Russian economy and blocked hundreds of millions of dollars in Russian assets in the United States.
“Our efforts, taken together with our partners across the U.S. Government and around the world, are guided by a clear understanding of the threat Russia poses to the United States and to our friends and allies,” she said in remarks prepared for delivery to the Senate Banking Committee.
“The breadth and brazenness of Russia’s malign conduct demands a firm and vigorous response,” Mandelker said. The administration has placed sanctions on 217 Russian-related people and companies since 2017, which she said included close Putin associates and a “veritable ‘who’s who’ of Russia’s most prominent companies.”
The British call to continue and increase sanctions against Russia came a day after the software giant Microsoft uncovered fresh attempts by Russian hackers, with ties to the Russian military intelligence agency, to create fake websites to mimic two conservative Washington think tanks, the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute.
Microsoft said the latest attempts were mounted by the same Russian group that hacked into Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Mitchell, in the diplomat’s congressional testimony, withheld endorsement of a new sanctions legislation package, called the Deter Act, that would impose new penalties if the director of national intelligence uncovered Russian efforts to interfere in future U.S. elections.
John Hudson and Carol Morello in Washington, William Booth and Karla Adam in London and Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Greece’s government as right wing. The story has been corrected.