The State Department on Friday moved belatedly to implement a sanctions law President Donald Trump had resisted, publishing a list of toxic Russian companies and warning third parties they're at risk of tough U.S. financial penalties should they do business with any of them.
The guidance includes more than three dozen entities, including arms trader Rosoboronexport and missile manufacturer Almaz-Antey, that sell weapons and aircraft to U.S. allies in the Middle East and eastern Europe. But the State Department said the standard for imposing sanctions is flexible and the impact to U.S. national security of a particular arms deal would be weighed first.
"We'll talk to partners and allies about where we find transactions that may be problematic," a senior department official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the law's implementation.
The sanctions law was Congress' response to Moscow's meddling in the U.S. presidential election last year and its military aggression in Ukraine and Syria. U.S. officials said Russia's leading spy agencies, the GRU and FSB, were involved in the election interference. The GRU is Russia's military intelligence agency. The FSB is the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
All the companies in the State Department guidance are affiliated with Russia's intelligence and defense sectors. The message the law and the list send is straightforward: The United States can't bar third parties from working with these companies, but if they do the U.S. can decide to freeze their assets and lock them out of the American financial system.
The list was supposed to be published Oct. 1. Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and John McCain, R-Ariz., two of the bill's main sponsors and vocal critics on the delay, declared in a statement Thursday that the guidance issued by State "is a step in the right direction."
With pressure building after the deadline was missed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson approved the roster and authorized its release to certain members of Congress late Thursday.
Also on the list are Russia's biggest shipbuilding firm, United Shipbuilding Corporation, and state-owned United Aircraft Corporation, which manufactures the Sukhoi, Tupolev and MiG jets.
Tillerson said one reason for the delay has been concern about how the sanctions may affect businesses and major U.S. allies who do business with Russia's defense and intelligence sectors. Turkey, a NATO ally, has a deal with the Kremlin to buy the S-400, Russia's most advanced air defense missile system, which is manufactured by state-owned Almaz-Antey. And key security partner Saudi Arabia recently struck an array of deals with Moscow, including contracts for Russian weapons.
Despite overwhelming support in Congress for the sanctions bill, many lawmakers openly worried that Trump didn't share their desire to rebuke Russia. Instead of looking for ways to retaliate against Moscow for the election meddling, Trump had openly challenged the findings of his own intelligence agencies, which concluded Russia had sought to tip the election in his behalf.
In a statement issued when he signed the sanctions bill, the president complained that lawmakers had overstepped their constitutional bounds and impeded his ability to negotiate with foreign countries. To make sure his administration didn't drag its feet on implementing the law, Cardin, McCain and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, frequently pressed Tillerson for status reports.
In particular, Cardin and McCain had pushed for an expansive view of how the list of Russian companies would be assembled. They wanted to make sure it was expansive to ensure Russia and potential customers couldn't skirt the penalties by funneling the arms trade through companies that weren't included on the roster.
A number of the Russian companies -- such as Almaz-Antey, state holding company Rostec and ordnance manufacturer Molot-Oruzhie -- had already been sanctioned by the United States. Rostec promotes Russian exports and oversees numerous metals, automotive and weapons producers, including Kalashnikov, the maker of the prolific AK-47 assault rifle.
Sergei Chemezov, former chairman of Rosoboronexport and current chairman of Rostec, also was sanctioned as part of the U.S. response to Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea in 2014. Chemezov is part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.