Purchases of Sukhoi fighters and S-400 missiles punished under legislation targeting Russia
US slaps sanctions on China over Russian fighters and missiles
The United States expanded its sanctions war against Russia to China with punitive measures against a Chinese military organisation for buying Russian fighter jets and missiles.
Stepping up pressure on Moscow over its "malign activities", the US State Department announced on Thursday that it was placing financial sanctions on the Equipment Development Department of the Chinese ministry of defence, and its top administrator, for its recent purchase of Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 surface-to-air missiles.
Moscow and Beijing lashed out at the move, with Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov warning that the US was "playing with fire" and China asking Washington to with draw the sanctions or "bear the consequences".
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Petrov also accused the US of trying to squeeze Russia out of the global weapons market thrpough "dishonest competition".
US officials said it was the first time a third country has been punished under the CAATSA sanctions legislation for dealing with Russia, and signalled the Trump administration's willingness to risk relations with other countries in its campaign against Moscow.
They also said that the US could consider similar action against other countries taking delivery of Russian fighter jets and missiles. US ally Turkey is currently talking with Moscow about an S-400 deal.
"The ultimate target of these sanctions is Russia," a senior administration official said.
"CAATSA sanctions in this context are not intended to undermine the defence capabilities of any particular country. They are aimed at imposing costs on Russia in response to its malign activities."
CAATSA, or the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, was passed in 2017 as a tool that gives the Trump administration more ways to target Russia, Iran and North Korea with economic and political sanctions.
It has been applied to Russia for its "aggression in Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, cyber intrusions and attacks, interference in the 2016 elections, and other malign activities", the State Department said.
The legislation allows the government to take action against those companies and individuals who have been placed on the CAATSA blacklist.
China's Equipment Development Department (EDD) and its director Li Shangfu became targets after taking delivery over the past year of the jets and missiles from Rosoboronexport, Russia's main arms export entity that is already on the CAATSA blacklist for its support of the Assad regime in Syria.
At the same time, the State Department also announced it was placing 33 Russian intelligence and military-linked actors on its sanctions blacklist under the CAATSA rules.
All of them - defence-related firms, officers of the GRU military intelligence agency, and people associated with the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency disinformation group - have been on previous US sanctions lists and 28 of them have already been indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller, head of the US investigation into Russia election meddling.
"We will continue to vigorously implement CAATSA and urge all countries to curtail relationships with Russia's defence and intelligence sectors, both of which are linked to malign activities worldwide," the State Department said.
The sanctions freeze any of EDD's and Mr Li's assets in US jurisdictions.
They also restrict EDD's access to global financial markets by blocking foreign exchange transactions under US jurisdiction or any transactions in the US financial system.
The senior official stressed that CAATSA is not going to be implemented across the board, but that the US was choosing Russia's sale of "bigger ticket items" of "new, fancy, qualitatively significant stuff" that could have a "security impact" on the United States.
"The CAATSA was not intended to take down the economy of third party countries. It's intended to impose appropriate pressures on Russia in response to Russian malign acts," the official said.
The official declined to say whether the US would take similar action if Russia delivered S-400 missiles to other countries such as Turkey.
However, he said, "You can be confident that we have spent an enormous amount of time talking about prospective purchases of things such as S-400s and Sukhois with people all around the world who may have been interested in such things and some who may still be.
"We have made it very clear to them that these - that systems like the S-400 are a system of key concern with potential CAATSA implications."