U.S. lawmakers on Sunday applauded the Trump administration’s most recent move to sanction Russian oligarchs for the country’s “malign” influence around the globe and said the economic pressure is especially important now in the wake of an apparent chemical attack in Syria — a key Russian ally.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, said that although the president could have acted faster on the sanctions, the targeting of oligarchs was “very important.”
“I really applaud the people in the State Department and in Treasury for taking this action,” said Mr. Cardin, his party’s ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Trump administration Friday slapped sanctions on Russian senior officials, oligarchs and the companies they own, going after those closest to President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow’s activities around the world.
In a significant escalation of the sanctions, President Trump targeted oligarchs and companies in the energy sector, which is the lifeblood of the Russian economy.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, said that stepping up pressure on Russia is particularly important after images shot around the world of a suspected chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of people in Syria over the weekend.
Russia is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose government has been battling rebel forces in a bloody civil war in the country for seven years.
“Last time this happened, the president did a targeted attack to take out some of the facilities — that may be an option that we should consider now,” Ms. Collins said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“But it is further reason why it is so important that the president ramp up the pressure and the sanctions on the Russian government, because, without the support of Russia, I do not believe that Assad would still be in office,” she said.
The sanctions also hit Mr. Putin’s son-in-law, who became a major energy sector player after marrying into the Putin family.
The sanctions froze all assets for seven Russian oligarchs and 12 companies they own or control, 17 senior Russian government officials, and a state-owned Russian weapons trading company and its banking subsidiary.
The Trump administration said the sanctions are intended to punish Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from the country’s “corrupt” system.
They follow sanctions on Russian officials and expulsions of 60 Russian diplomats last month over Moscow’s nerve agent assassination attempt in Britain on a former Russian double agent and his daughter.
The U.S. now has hit around 200 Russian individuals and entities with various sanctions.
The latest sanctions brought a swift condemnation from senior Russian officials, who accused the Trump administration of lashing out to mask America’s own mounting problems.
The Russian Foreign Ministry is looking at possible responses to the sanctions, said spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
“The response will be given. We always do it. We have drawn an entire list of possible measures we are looking at,” she said, according to the state-owned Tass news agency.
“It has nothing to do with some virtual meddling with elections, it has nothing to do with either Crimea or Ukraine. It is a strategy, a knock-down-Russia game,” Ms. Zakharova said Sunday in an interview on Rossiya-1 TV.
Before the sanctions were officially announced, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the phrase “Russian oligarchs” inappropriate.
“It’s been a long time since Russia had oligarchs. There are no oligarchs in Russia,” he said, according to The Moscow Times.
Mr. Trump, dogged by special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, also has struggled to shake the perception that he is soft on Mr. Putin, though he did criticize the Russian president by name on Sunday for supporting the Assad regime.
“President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad,” the president tweeted.
Mr. Cardin said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he was pleased by the president’s Syria tweets. He said the specific mention of Mr. Putin’s name was a significant change for Mr. Trump.
“He has not done that in regards to the sanctions imposed against the oligarchs. And he certainly has not done that in regards to Mr. Putin’s interference in our own country,” Mr. Cardin said.
The administration would not say why Mr. Putin was not included on the sanctions list but stressed that he would feel the impact.
“This will be noticed far and wide,” said a senior administration official.
The Treasury has been preparing the sanctions for a long time, and they are directed at the “full range of Russian activities,” said another senior official.
The official said the moves are not a direct response to the recent assassination attempt in Britain, which triggered punitive action from governments around the world.