“Technical adjustment” on Russian sanctions may involve more than meets the eye

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that U.S. sanctions against Russia, specifically the FSB, had been relaxed in order to allow the FSB, which has a monopoly on such matters, to issue licenses or authorizations to allow U.S. firms to export to Russia “certain communications technology items, mostly consumer goods such as cellphones, tablets and low-level encryption software.”

See Karen DeYoung, “How a tweak became a tempest: Trump, Russia and sanctions,” Washington Post, February 2, 2017 (4:48 PM).

Pursuant to last month’s sanctions by the Obama administration on Russia’s intelligence service for interfering in the U.S. election, (the Treasury Department on Thursday) said, “certain transactions” with the service, known as the FSB, were to be authorized.

By midafternoon, after failing to respond for hours to media calls asking for an explanation, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control organized a call-in briefing with a “senior Treasury official,” who, it cautioned, could not be quoted.

The official explained that U.S. exports of certain communications technology items, mostly consumer goods such as cellphones, tablets and low-level encryption software, were and remain legal. In the Russian system, however, the FSB is responsible for processing their import. Sanctions prohibiting any dealings with the FSB — which charges a fee for its processing service — meant that exports had stopped.

U.S. exporters had complained, the official said, so the new administration looked into the matter and decided they had a point. The fix now allows U.S. companies, prohibited from dealing with the FSB in any other way, to pay up to $5,000 a year in FSB fees so that Russians can buy American-exported cellphones and other consumer items. Other sanctions remain in place.

The bottom line: The Russian FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB, was directly involved along with Valdimir Putin, a former director of the FSB, in the Russian intervention in the November, 2016 elections. While presented as an action in response to the demands of U.S. exporters, it certainly would appear that the relaxation of sanctions against the FSB is something the FSB would like to happen.

The FSB may hold compromising information regarding Donald Trump’s activities in Moscow, according to a dossier prepared by Christopher Steele, a former MI6 agent who following publication of a two-page annex to the intelligence agencies report of Russian intervention in the election, and the death of a former KGB head in late December who appears to have been involved in the leak of the “Golden Showers” information included in the the dossier, has gone into hiding.

Thus, what first appeared to be unsubstantiated allegations (though of a serious enough nature to warrant their inclusion in the intelligence agencies report on the Russian intervention in the U.S. election), now would appear to merit serious investigation by an independent commission or panel.

See “Is there a Russian mole in the U.S. government? What fait accompli are Bannon and Trump plannng on Russia?” The Trenchant Observer, January 31, 2017.

There exists the significant possibility that the FSB, holding incriminating information about Trump, has received a relaxation of the sanctions imposed against it by the Obama administration, through the action of officials acting under the direction of President Trump.

While described as a “technical fix”, the relaxation of sanctions by the Trump administration raises the question of why, if it was merely a “technical fix”,  that fix was not made by the Obama administration.

The possibility that something more nefarious than a “technical fix” is involved here, in effect a first concession to Putin in connecton with the sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Russia, is serious.  It should not be summarily dismissed as it was by the official from the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Rather, the matter should be the subject of an independent investigation.

Why “certain communications technology items, mostly consumer goods such as cellphones, tablets and low-level encryption software,” were not included in the sanctions is puzzling. Perhaps they should be included now.

The Trenchant Observer

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"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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