The Treasury Department today announced vague changes to sanctions issued against the Russian government for alleged election-related hacks. The move raised fears that Donald Trump — who likely benefited from the election malfeasance — was moving away from the United States’ stance toward Russia.
The confusion was understandable. At a glance, the document released is strange: it’s titled “Authorizing Certain Transactions with the Federal Security Service,” mentions “information technology products,” and is heavy on policy jargon.
But policy experts suggest the change is more than likely benign. Although Trump has suggested he could roll back some sanctions, the current changes are more likely a bureaucratic fix to unintended consequences of the sanctions already in place. Experts have pointed out that it’s routine to tweak sanctions, and in this case, the move removes a hurdle for US technology companies looking for a license to sell products in Russia.
The sanctions put in place under the Obama administration barred US companies from doing business with Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB. But as sanctions expert Eric Lorber explained in a statement, and as others have previously, the sanctions may have failed to take into account how business is done Russia. The FSB issues licenses for the sale of products like mobile devices that use encryption tech, meaning many American companies hoping to sell there must, in a sense, do business with the FSB. "I don't think when they sanctioned FSB they were intending to complicate the sale of cell phones and tablets," Peter Harrell, a former State Department official, explained to Reuters. The new changes eases the restrictions on the FSB to make clear US companies can purchase business licenses from the agency.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer similarly downplayed the change at a press conference today, saying, “We’re not easing sanctions.”
“From what I understand it’s a fairly common practice for the Treasury Department,” Spicer said, ”after sanctions are put in place, to go back and to look at whether or not there needs to be specific carve outs for industries or products that need to go back and forth.”