Trump administration modifies sanctions against Russian intelligence service

Treasury allows firms to do biz with Russia's Fed Sec. Service

The Trump administration on Thursday altered sanctions against companies doing business with Russia's domestic intelligence agency.

The Treasury Department said it will allow American companies to make limited transactions with the FSB, the successor to the KGB, if it needs them to get approval to import or distribute technology products in Russia. The exception will also apply to situations in which companies need to comply with rules administered by the FSB.

The implications of the move were not immediately clear, but the U.S. has taken similar steps in the past to help businesses avoid unintended consequences on cross-border transactions.

"I haven't eased anything," Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday.

The White House said the move was routine and not a change in policy or easing of the sanctions. A source familiar with the sanctions told NBC News that the change was a technical fix that was planned under Obama.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer also disputed the notion that it marked a shift in policy toward Russia: "No it doesn't. From what I understand, it is a regular course of action," Spicer said.

"Our understanding is that this is not the start of sanctions easing," said Ian Bremmer, a widely respected political scientist and president of consulting firm Eurasia Group. "It's a rule change clearing up a problem with the sanctions regime that prevented U.S. exporters of non-sanctioned electronic devices from complying with both U.S. and Russian law. The problem was identified by the Obama administration, and this appears to be the response to address it."

In December, President Obama authorized sanctions on individuals that America's intelligence agencies determined were involved in the efforts, including cyberattacks, to meddle with the U.S. elections in November. The White House sanctioned nine entities and individuals: two Russian intelligence agencies including the FSB, four officers of Russia's largest intelligence agency, the GRU, and three companies that supported GRU's operations.

Trump has called for better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has not ruled out lifting U.S. sanctions brought in response to Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimea region in Ukraine.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Russia hawk who has called for more sanctions on Moscow, told NBC News that Thursday's move looks like "largely a technical fix."

Separately, Russian media reported this week that three FSB officials were charged with treason. The reason for their arrest was not immediately clear.

— CNBC's Ted Kemp, NBC News and Reuters contributed to this report