The US Treasury Department on Thursday eased sanctions on Russian intelligence agency FSB put in place by former President Barack Obama last year over accusations that Moscow launched cyber attacks to try to influence the US presidential election.
The Treasury Department said in a statement it would allow US companies to make limited transactions with the intelligence service that are needed to gain approval to import information technology products into Russia.
The White House immediately batted down the suggestion sanctions were being relaxed.
It said actions by the Treasury Department for companies were routine.
Asked about the Treasury’s statement and whether it suggested a shift in policy toward Russia, US White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters: “No it doesn’t. From what I understand it is a regular course of action.” He referred questions about the move to the Treasury Department.
The broader significance of the sanctions exemptions were not immediately clear. The Treasury Department often issues general licenses such as the one announced on Thursday to help US companies overcome unintended business consequences of sanctions.
US intelligence agencies accused the FSB of involvement in hacking of Democratic organisations during the election, won by Republican Donald Trump.
The agencies and private cyber security experts concluded the FSB first broke into the Democratic National Committee’s computer system in the summer of 2015 and began monitoring email and chat conversations.
They say FSB was one of two Russian spy agencies believed to have been involved in a wide-ranging operation by top-ranking individuals in Russia’s government to discredit Democrat Hillary Clinton and help Trump win the election.
In December, Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian suspected spies and put sanctions on two Russian spy agencies. He also sanctioned four Russian intelligence officers and three companies that he said provided material support to Russian cyber operations.
Trump has said he wants better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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