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Putin Says Russia Will Not Expel U.S. Diplomats

  • RFE/RL

Russian President Vladimir Putin's statement made clear that he wants to be seen as taking the high road and to make the Obama administration look vindictive.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's statement made clear that he wants to be seen as taking the high road and to make the Obama administration look vindictive.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says that Moscow will not expel any Americans from the country, opting out of a tit-for-tat retaliation after the United States kicked 35 Russian officials out over allegations of hacking aimed at interfering in the U.S. election, espionage, and harassment of U.S. diplomats in Russia.

Putin's statement came after Russia had signaled that it would hit back with a "mirror" response to the U.S. expulsions, which were part of a package of measures announced by President Barack Obama's administration that also included sanctions against Russian intelligence agencies and the closure of two recreational compounds for Russian diplomats in the United States.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had sent Putin a list of 35 U.S. diplomats and recommended their expulsion, as well as the closure of a vacation cabin and a warehouse in Moscow that are used by U.S. Embassy personnel.

But Putin's statement, posted on the Kremlin website, made clear that he wants to be seen as taking the high road and to make the Obama administration look vindictive.

It also suggested he would like to avoid an escalation of one of the biggest disputes since the Cold War just weeks before President-elect Donald Trump takes office -- and to increase the chances that Trump, who has indicated he wants better relations with Moscow, will scrap the sanctions.

Trump on Twitter later praised Putin for holding off on retaliatory actions, calling him "very smart."

Putin said that the measures announced by the Obama administration on December 29 were "unfriendly" and "aimed at further undermining Russian-American relations. Considering the special responsibility that Russia and the United States have for preserving global security, this will deal a blow to the whole system of international relations."

But he said that while "reserving the right to take measures in response, we are not going to bring ourselves down to the level of irresponsible 'kitchen' diplomacy, and will base further steps to rebuild Russian-American relations on the policies that President Trump pursues."

"We will not create problems for American diplomats. We are not going to expel anybody," Putin said, pointedly adding that he was inviting "all children of American diplomats accredited in Russia" to traditional New Year and Russian Orthodox Christmas celebrations in the Kremlin.

"It is too bad that President Obama's administration is ending its work in such a way, but nonetheless, I wish him and his family a happy New Year," he said.

The CIA, the FBI, and the broader U.S. intelligence community have concluded that computer hackers, likely operating with the authority of the highest levels of the Russian government, broke into servers and e-mail accounts belonging to the U.S. Democratic Party, as well as other officials, during the campaign for the November 8 election.

INFOGRAPHIC: Obama Strikes Back: Executive Order 13964 (click to enlarge)

In addition to expelling 35 Russian officials it identified as intelligence operatives and closing off access to shoreline compounds in Maryland and New York, the United States also imposed financial and travel sanctions on nine top officials and entities associated with Russian military intelligence (GRU) and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

A senior U.S. administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that incuded four GRU officials who were directly involved in computer hacking, including that of U.S. political parties, and three companies that provided "material support" to GRU hacking efforts.

Trump has repeatedly made remarks casting doubt on those assertions, saying in December that "it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey" rather than hackers working at the Kremlin's behest.

Trump issued a statement on December 29 saying that "it's time for our country to move on to bigger and better things," but confirmed that he will "meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of the situation."

Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway told CNN that "even those who are sympathetic to President Obama on most issues are saying that part of the reason he did this today was to 'box in' President-elect Trump."

In conjunction with the new sanctions against Russia, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a new report on December 29 detailing some of the Russian hacking, which included not only state electoral databases but other "critical infrastructure."

"To be very clear here, they have been interfering in the American democratic process and the conduct of American diplomacy, this should be of concern to all Americans and members of both parties," one administration official was quoted as saying.

Republican U.S. Senator John McCain has scheduled a January 5 hearing on foreign cyberthreats to the United States.

Witnesses called to testify include Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Admiral Mike Rogers, head of the U.S. Cyber Command, according to a post on December 30 on the website of the Senate Armed Services Committee that McCain leads.

Because Obama imposed the new sanctions and expulsions by executive order, Trump could easily reverse them, but analysts say that could be a difficult step politically because prominent Republicans in Congress supported the measures -- with some saying they don't go far enough. Putin's refusal to retaliate in kind adds another factor to the decisions Trump will have to make, potentially increasing pressure he faces from the Kremlin to make concessions to Russia.

U.S.-Russian relations are at a post-Cold War low, hung up on differences over Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its continuing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, a number of former Soviet republics' and satellites' embrace of the NATO security umbrella, divergent tacks in warring Syria, and the alleged election hacking, among other things.

Russia had vowed to retaliate in an "adequate" way to the U.S. measures, but had left its plans unknown overnight after the U.S. announcement.

Shortly before Putin's announcement was posted on the Kremlin website, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denied a report by U.S. television network CNN stating that Russia would close the Anglo-American School of Moscow, which is attended by children of U.S. diplomats and expatriates from some 60 countries, as well as Russians.

"This is a lie," Zakharova wrote on Facebook. "Apparently, the White House has gone completely mad and has begun to make up sanctions against its own children."

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote on social media that "it is very sad the Obama administration, which began its term of office by efforts to restore cooperation" -- a reference to the so-called reset undertaken when Medvedev was president -- "is ending it with an anti-Russian agony." The post concluded "R.I.P.," an abbreviation for the funeral epitaph "rest in peace."

Peter Harrell, a former State Department official who helped craft U.S. sanctions in response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, said the Obama administration should have taken such measures months ago, given the scope and duration of Russian hacking. But he argued the administration was compelled to act to deter future Russian activity.

"Better late than never," Harrell told RFE/RL. "Either we do something now, or the other outcome, with Trump coming in, is that we do nothing and for the U.S., [with] Russian influencing the elections as these guys did…that would be a terrible precedent.

"We would look weak and invite future action down the road, and for me this is something where we had to respond," he said on December 29.

Harrell also pointed out that the executive order issued by Obama in conjunction with the sanctions effectively detaches the new measures from the older measures imposed in connection with Russia's interference in Ukraine. That means that even if the conflict in Ukraine is ever resolved, the new hacking-related sanctions could still remain in place, he said.

With reporting RFE/RL's Mike Eckel, Reuters, Bloomberg, and Interfax
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