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Russia chastises U.S. after sanctions over chemical attack in Britain

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on July 31.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on July 31. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)
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Russian officials lambasted new U.S. sanctions Friday and vowed to push back in response as relations between the two countries continue to deteriorate.

In a phone call with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed Moscow’s “categorical disagreement” with the punitive measures announced Wednesday in connection with the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy in Britain.

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Lavrov told Pompeo there is no proof Russia played a role in the March attack on the former Kremlin spy, ­Sergei Skripal.

Under U.S. law, the Trump administration is required to impose new sanctions when governments are determined to have used chemical or biological weapons. London and Washington have blamed Moscow, saying Skripal and his daughter were attacked with the Russian nerve agent Novichok.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Aug. 9 U.S. "actions testify that they are not ready" to forge a better relationship with Russia (Video: Reuters)

“The Russian side voiced categorical disagreement with the new sanctions recently announced by Washington with reference to some allegedly existing information on Russia’s involvement in the so-called Skripal case,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement posted on its website.

Trump administration to impose new sanctions on Russia for nerve agent attack in England

The State Department confirmed that the call took place and that the two diplomats discussed the sanctions. It said Pompeo “reiterated that the United States seeks an improved relationship with Russia, and agreed to future dialogue.”

The sanctions, which do not take effect for two weeks, primarily ban U.S. exports of technology and machinery to Russia, much of which already is restricted under other sanctions. More sweeping sanctions are likely to come in November.

A proposed bill in the Senate would ban investments in Russian energy projects, sovereign debt and national banks.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Friday that the sanctions could be a “declaration of economic war” and vowed to respond.

“Speaking on further sanctions, I would not like to comment, but I can say one thing,” Medvedev said at a meeting of employees of the Kronotsky Nature Reserve. “If a kind of prohibition of bank activities or using this or that currency followed, this can be called, absolutely directly, this is a declaration of economic war.

“And to this war, we will have to react by economic, political and, in case of necessity, other methods. And our American friends must understand that.”

Trump administration officials made clear that U.S. law gave them no choice but to enact new sanctions — and that it was not their policy decision after President Trump and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s meeting in Helsinki last month.

Russia’s continued denial of responsibility increases the likelihood that more-sweeping U.S. sanctions will be imposed in 90 days. Under U.S. law, the next round of sanctions will start unless Russia admits it used chemical weapons on foreign soil, promises not to do it again and agrees to allow international inspectors access to sites in Russia to verify it.

Since Russia’s reaction suggests it will not take such steps, the administration will have to choose from additional sanctions. Those could include denying Russian airlines landing rights in the United States and even severing diplomatic relations.

Distrust between the two countries has spiked amid Russia’s renewed aggressiveness on the world stage, starting with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s subsequent interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Trump administration has aggressively used sanctions as a tool to deploy when diplomacy won’t work. The biggest targets have been Russia, Iran and North Korea.

On Thursday, Russia and China blocked a U.S. proposal at the United Nations to blacklist a Moscow-based North Korean banker and two other entities as punishment for breaking U.N. sanctions designed to get Pyongyang to negotiate abolishing its nuclear weapons.

Russia contends that U.S. sanctions against Moscow are illegal. Maria Zakharova, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said Thursday that the ongoing waves of “odious” sanctions are an effort to demonize Russia.

“Russia has repeatedly warned that talking to us from a position of strength, and in the language of ultimatums, is futile and pointless,” she said. “We will consider countermeasures to this most recent unfriendly move by Washington.”