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Trump and Putin in Helsinki. Photo: Brendan SmialowskiAFP/Getty Images

Moscow is fuming over the latest sanctions triggered yesterday by President Trump, which could carry significant diplomatic and economic consequences.

Between the lines: This is another punch landed by a man who seemed reluctant to throw it. Trump took this step after missing a deadline and absorbing pressure from Congress, particularly in the wake of his jarring performance alongside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. He has tweeted about Russia today, but it was to condemn witch hunts rather than the use of chemical weapons.

How it happened...

In March, the Trump administration accused Russia of culpability in the nerve agent attack on Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. That put the wheels in motion...

  • The House Foreign Affairs committee requested a formal determination within 60 days as to whether Russia had illegally used chemical weapons, under the terms of a 1991 law which lays out sanctions for countries that do so.
  • That deadline came and went, but Rep. Ed Royce, the committee’s Republican chairman, prodded Trump on the matter in a July 26 letter, requesting a determination by August 9. Yesterday, August 8, Secretary of State Pompeo issued that determination.
  • That triggered an initial batch of sanctions, which will be of little practical effect. A second round of harder-hitting sanctions looms if Russia fails to make certain assurances on chemical weapons that, let's face it, it's not going to make.

What to watch: In phase two, Trump could cut off nearly all trade with Russia and block its state airline, Aeroflot, from landing in the U.S., per NBC’s Josh Lederman. The administration will likely decide not to escalate matters that far.

  • Mark Simakovsky of the Atlantic Council says Russia remains confident "Trump will ultimately be a brake on the fundamental breakdown of relations," no matter how far members of Congress and some in his administration want to push things.

Between the lines: Trump's reluctance to confront the Kremlin threatens to defang his own administration's policies, while those same policies are undercutting his attempts to improve relations with Russia.

  • Trump has already expelled 60 diplomats and closed a Russian consulate in Seattle over the Skripal attack, but reportedly protested to aides when that response turned out to far exceed steps allies took.
  • In December, Trump agreed to provide lethal weaponry to Ukraine in Kiev’s fight against Russian-backed separatists. Since then, Trump has blamed Barack Obama rather than Putin for Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, and reportedly told fellow world leaders in June that Crimea is Russian because everyone there speaks Russian.
  • Last August, Trump signed into law sanctions designed to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 election. But he privately fumed about Congress forcing his hand, and slow-walked the implementation process.

The bottom line: Trump came into office considering rolling back Obama's sanctions, rather than imposing new ones. Yet the punishments keep piling up on his watch.

"How is this administration taking tough actions on Russia while the president actively avoids them? That’s the question everyone is trying to answer."
Mark Simakovsky

Go deeper

Judge nixes Gulf of Mexico oil leases in climate-focused ruling

Tug boats prepare to tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday canceled the Biden administration's late 2021 sale of new oil-and-gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The ruling that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was insufficient is a win for green groups that challenged the decision, as they seek to curb fossil fuel production.

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Credit: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine Thursday night, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.

2 hours ago - World

Zelensky questions U.S. warnings of "imminent" invasion in Biden call

Biden and Zelensky at the White House last October. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had a back-and-forth in their call this evening about just how "imminent" the threat of a Russian invasion might be, according to three sources briefed on the call.

Why it matters: Biden has said previously that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin will probably "move in" to Ukraine, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday afternoon that "an invasion could come at any time."