Today, the Treasury Department issued a General License authorizing transactions and activities concerning information technology products in the Russian Federation despite recent executive order prohibiting such transactions.
In April 1, 2015, President Obama issued Executive Order 13694 (“Blocking the Property of Certain Persons Engaging in Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities”). In short summary, this order blocked any property or interests in property that is in the US, ends up in the US, or that come within the possession or control of any US persons, if such persons end up being responsible, complicit or supportive of cyber-enabled activities that (1) have the purpose of causing harm or risk to the critical infrastructure sector and are reasonably likely to result in or material contribute to threats to national security, foreign policy or economic heal or financial stability; or (2) the knowing receipt or use by a commercial entity outside or the United States, for commercial or competitive advantage or private financial gain, of trade secrets misappropriate by cyber-enabled means.
On December 28, 2016, following reports regarding the Russian hacking of Democratic political organizations and operatives, President Obama issued Order 13757 (“Taking Additional Steps to Address the National Emergency With Respect to Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities”) to amend Order 13694. This amendment included an Annex blocking certain entities and individuals, including the Federal Security Services (a.k.a. Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or “FSB”),but also authorizing the Secretary of Treasury, in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of State, to determine “that circumstances no longer warrant the blocking of the property and interested in property of a person listed in the Annex to this order, and to take necessary action to give effect to that determinations.” The Russian FSB represents Russia’s domestic security service, and must approve certain encrypted technology imports to Russia per domestic law.
Today, however, the Treasury exercised its right in Section 10 by authorizing American tech companies to seek licenses from Russia’s FSB to export their good to Russia, so long as the products are not used in Crimea and do not violate pre-existing sanctions. Despite claims that the Trump administration is “easing sanctions against Russia”, White House press secretary Sean Spicer claimed in today’s press conference that the Treasury Department’s actions were not “easing sanctions”, and that it is “a fairly common practice of the Treasury Department, after sanctions are put in place, to go back and to look at whether or not there needs to be specific carve-outs for either industries or products and services that need to be going back and forth.” Other experts agreed that the OFAC’s amendment is likely an intention to clean up unintended consequences of the ban through limited carveouts rather than relaxing sanctions.