In a surprise move, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that he won’t act on a recommendation from his foreign minister to expel 35 American diplomats in a tit-for-tat response to sanctions by Washington, and would instead seek to rebuild relations with the U.S. under President-elect Donald Trump.
“We will not create problems for American diplomats. We will not send anyone away,” he said, according to Russian state news agency Sputnik. He also said he was inviting all children of U.S. diplomats to a Christmas and New Year’s celebration at the Kremlin.
Hours earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had said he had recommended that the Kremlin expel 31 diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and four from the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. The move was the expected response to sanctions announced by Washington on Thursday over Russia’s alleged hacking of the U.S. presidential election.
Instead, Putin said he would not take immediate action, and would reserve the right to respond until Trump took office, with a view to renewing ties with the U.S. “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,” the Russian leader said, in a statement issued by the Kremlin.
The diplomatic spat followed sanctions announced by U.S. President Obama Thursday, which the outgoing leader described as a “necessary and appropriate” reaction to Russian attempts to harm American interests.
The White House has accused Russia of orchestrating hacks of Democratic-affiliated email accounts earlier this year in an attempt to interfere with the presidential election – an accusation Russia has repeatedly denied, with Lavrov calling them “groundless” on Friday.
The executive order signed by Obama gave 35 Russian diplomats and their families 72 hours to leave the country; closed two compounds in New York and Maryland believed to have been used by Russian intelligence; and imposed sanctions on nine entities and individuals, including Russian intelligence agencies the GRU and FSB, and individuals and companies linked to them. The president said further actions would be taken, some of which would not be made public.
“Russia’s cyber-activities were intended to influence the election, erode faith in U.S. democratic institutions, sow doubt about the integrity of our electoral process, and undermine confidence in the institutions of the U.S. government,” a White House statement said on Thursday.
“These actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
Putin said Friday that it was “regrettable that the President Obama administration is finishing its work in such a way, but I congratulate him and members of his family with the upcoming New Year anyway,” Sputnik reported. The Russian leader said that in light of the two countries’ “special responsibility for the preservation of global security,” the expulsion of the diplomats was damaging to the system of international relations.
Senior Russian officials weigh in
Russian officials responded to the sanctions with fury and bluster on social media, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev the most senior to weigh in online.
Shortly after taking office in 2009, Obama pursued a “re-set” with Russia to restore links damaged by the fallout from Russia’s 2008 war in Georgia. But in subsequent years the relationship has again deteriorated amid tensions over Ukraine, which resulted in painful sanctions for Russia; Syria, where Russia has sidelined the U.S. during recent peace efforts; and now the hacking allegations.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook that Obama’s sanctions proved that “the people who have spent eight years in the White House are not an administration, they are a group of foreign policy losers, embittered and short-sighted.”
Meanwhile, the Russian Embassy in London also took a shot at the outgoing U.S. president, tweeting that his administration was “hapless,” and posting an image of a duck emblazoned with the word “LAME.”
In a previous case of tit-for-tat expulsions in 2001, Washington sent home 51 Russian diplomats accused of spying. Moscow responded in kind, by kicking out 50.
An unexpected response
Keir Giles, an expert on Russia and a director at the UK’s Conflict Studies Research Center, told VICE News that the unexpected response from Putin “ticks a number of boxes” for the Russian leader.
It positions him at home and internationally as a “strong, magnanimous leader, someone who makes the final decision despite Lavrov’s recommendations” – and effectively sidelines Obama by dangling “both a carrot and a stick for Trump.”
“It shows how relations could be improved if Trump plays along, but the prospect of things going badly if he doesn’t cooperate,” he said, adding that the only potential downside for Putin was if it was viewed by the Russian public as a sign of weakness in the face of American hostility.
He said he believed that action over the hacking allegations had been long overdue. “The only surprising thing about this is that it’s taken the U.S. so long to respond,” he said.
“Until now, as with so many other features of U.S.-Russia relations, Russia has been able to push the boundaries further and further without any consequences, because the Obama administration has been determined not to react.”
By expelling the diplomats, he said, Obama had “finally shown that the U.S. is taking steps to make it plain that the aggressive behavior by Russia has been noticed, and is not acceptable.”
Giles said the big unknown was how the bilateral relationship would fare under Trump’s incoming administration. Russia, he said, is genuinely interested in a re-set with the U.S., which would presumably revolve around improved cooperation in Syria, with both parties focused on defeating Islamist terrorism. They would also hope to see the easing of Western sanctions over Ukraine, which have hurt the Russian economy, he said.
Trump, who has repeatedly dismissed reports of Russian interference in the election, and urged the country on Thursday to “move on” from the issue, has exchanged pleasantries with Putin, prompting speculation he may be open to a change in relations. Last week, he released a Christmas letter he had been sent by the Russian leader, saying he agreed with Putin’s message about the need to improve cooperation between the two countries.
But it remains to be seen how the relationship will develop. Shortly before releasing Putin’s Christmas letter last week, Trump tweeted that he was ready for a new nuclear arms race.
“This is the big question,” said Giles, adding that while many observers assumed that Trump – a political novice – would be “a pushover for Putin,” his unpredictability meant anything was possible.
“The thing that’s being underestimated is the potential for him to stand up for U.S. interests in a way that Obama has not,” he said. “We could get a firmer line with Russia than has been the case up until now.”