The United States has handed down stiff new sanctions against Russia as President Donald Trump supports the UK’s claims that Moscow was behind last week’s Skripal assassination attempt.
The new sanctions target a range of Russian individuals and entities, including Moscow’s intelligence services, for meddling in the 2016 US election and malicious cyber attacks.
Thursday’s announcement comes as The New York Times reveals special counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organisation to turn over documents, including some related to Russia.
According to the report, Mr Mueller ordered the Trump Organisation to hand over all documents related to Russia and other topics he is investigating.
It is the first known instance of the special counsel demanding documents directly related to President Trump’s businesses, bringing the investigation closer to the president.
The new sanctions marked the first time the US government stated publicly that Russia had attempted to break into the American energy grid.
An alert was published at the same time by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, saying a “multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian government cyber actors” had targeted the networks of small commercial facilities “where they staged malware, conducted spear phishing, and gained remote access into energy sector networks”.
The new sanctions also include Russian intelligence services, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), and six individuals working on behalf of the GRU.
Mr Trump earlier told reporters during a White House event with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar that “it certainly looks like the Russians were behind” the use of a nerve agent to attack on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent in England.
The President called the attack “something that should never, ever happen, and we’re taking it very seriously, as I think are many others”.
His comment follows the release of a joint statement with Germany, Britain and France blaming Moscow for poisoning former Mr Skripal and his daughter.
The statement strongly condemned the nerve agent attack as “an assault on UK sovereignty” and said was is highly likely Russia was behind it.
It said the use of novichok “constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the second world war”, noting the attack “threatens the security of us all”.
“It is an assault on UK sovereignty and any such use by a state party is a clear violation of the chemical weapons convention and a breach of international law.
“It threatens the security of us all. The United Kingdom thoroughly briefed its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack.
The sanctions and support for Britain represent another plunge in US-Russian relations, despite Mr Trump’s stated desire for improved ties.
“The administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in US elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in announcing the new sanctions.
Mr Trump has frequently questioned a January 2017 finding by US intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 campaign using hacking and propaganda in an effort eventually aimed at tilting the race in his favour. Russia denies interfering in the election.
But Mr Mnuchin was unequivocal in saying that Thursday’s Treasury action “counters Russia’s continuing destabilising activities, ranging from interference in the 2016 election to conducting destructive cyber-attacks”.
The Treasury Department aimed the sanctions at 19 Russian individuals and five groups. Sixteen of the Russian individuals and entities sanctioned were indicted on February 16 as part of Mueller’s criminal investigation.
While Mr Trump has frequently called the Russia probe a “witch hunt”, the new sanctions appear to affirm Mueller’s investigative strategy.
Russian government hackers since at least March 2016 “have also targeted US government entities and multiple US critical infrastructure sectors, including the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors”, a Treasury Department statement said.
Mr Mnuchin said there would be additional sanctions against Russian government officials and oligarchs “for their destabilising activities.”