RUSSIA — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Moscow will not expel American diplomats in response to US sanctions against Russia, according to Russian state media.
The Russian Foreign Ministry had earlier recommended the Kremlin send home 35 US diplomats in response to a similar move by Washington on Thursday.
But Putin said he would not take immediate action, and would instead attempt to rebuild relations with the US after the inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump.
Putin was quoted by Sputnik as saying: “We will not create problems for American diplomats. We will not send anyone away. We will not prohibit their families and children to use for their usual vacation spots in the New Year’s holidays.”
However, Putin said that Russia reserved the right to respond to the new US sanctions. “Further steps towards the restoration of Russian-American relations will be built on the basis of the policies carried out by the administration of President Trump,” Putin said in a statement issued by the Kremlin.
On Thursday, the Obama administration announced it would expel 35 Russian diplomats from the US and to close two Russian compounds, after the US intelligence community concluded that Moscow had interfered directly in the 2016 US presidential election campaign.
The diplomats and their families were given 72 hours to leave the country.
Shortly before Putin’s reported decision, Russia’s Foreign Ministry had recommended that the Kremlin remove 35 US diplomats from Russia, 31 from the US Embassy in Moscow and four from the US consulate in St Petersburg.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the US allegations about election meddling “groundless” and “without proof.”
Russia denied a CNN report that Russian authorities had ordered the closure of the Anglo-American School in Moscow to US and foreign nationals.
Posting on her official Facebook account, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said: “American officials have ‘anonymously briefed’ their mass media about the fact that as a retaliatory measure Russia has closed the American School in Moscow. This is a lie. Clearly, the White House has completely lost its senses and begun to invent sanctions against its own children.”
Tit for tat
The tit-for-tat steps mark a new low in what have become increasingly frosty relations between Russia and the United States.
The Obama administration on Thursday described Russia’s actions as “Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities” and, in addition to the expulsions, sanctioned four Russian individuals and five Russian entities for what it said was election interference.
“Russia’s cyberactivities were intended to influence the election, erode faith in US democratic institutions, sow doubt about the integrity of our electoral process, and undermine confidence in the institutions of the US government,” a White House statement said. “These actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
The Obama administration also claimed its diplomatic personnel had been harassed in Russia.
It’s not yet clear whether the Kremlin will take any moves beyond the recommendation of the Foreign Ministry.
Lilit Gevorgyan, a political analyst for IHS Global Insight, said the very limited economic ties between the two nations meant Russia might stick to “diplomatic gestures.”
‘Not just an unfriendly act’
Even before Lavrov’s statement, there had been a scathing response from Russia to Washington’s moves.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev accused the Obama administration of ending its term in office “in anti-Russian agony.”
Posting on his official Twitter and Facebook accounts, Medvedev said, “Sadly, the Obama administration, which began its life with the restoration of cooperation, ends it in anti-Russian agony. RIP.”
A series of tweets from the Russian Embassy in Washington said the Obama administration’s sanctions were “aimed directly at undermining Russia-US bilateral relations” and warned, “They won’t be left unanswered.”
The sanctions will not be considered “just as (an) unfriendly act,” the embassy said.
Russia’s UK Embassy hit out at President Barack Obama over the sanctions via Twitter, labeling his administration “hapless” and posting an image to suggest he is a “lame duck” president.
Zakharova, on her personal Facebook page, dismissed the Obama administration as “a group of vindictive, unimaginative foreign policy failures,” with the exception of US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Russia’s response to the US sanctions may be complicated by the upcoming change in leadership
US President-elect Donald Trump, who is due to take office in only three weeks’ time, has signaled a desire for warmer relations with Russia.
While the US intelligence community has publicly stated Russia was behind hacks of political organizations and persons in the United States in the run-up to November’s election, Trump has largely rejected the notion.
A top aide to Trump, Kellyanne Conway, speculated Thursday that the Obama administration’s sanctions could have been intended to “box in” his successor over Russia.
A senior Obama administration official acknowledged Thursday that Trump could reverse the sanctions by executive order, but added, “I don’t think it’d make a lot of sense.”
Senior Republicans in Congress have backed the measures against Russia, even while criticizing Obama’s handling of foreign policy — signaling a potential split with Trump on the issue.