Russia-US row: Putin rules out tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats
MOSCOW, Dec 30: President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would not expel anyone in response to Washington's decision to throw out 35 suspected Russian spies and sanction intelligence agencies it believes were involved in computer hacking in the 2016 presidential election.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier proposed expelling 35 U.S. diplomats after outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the expulsions and sanctions on Thursday.
But Putin said he would wait for the actions of President-elect Donald Trump, who will take office on Jan. 20, before deciding on any further steps in relations with the United States.
"We will not expel anyone," Putin said in a statement on Friday. "While keeping the right for retaliatory measures, we will not descend to the level of 'kitchen', irresponsible diplomacy."
He even invited the children of U.S. diplomats to a party in the Kremlin.
It was not clear whether Trump, who has repeatedly praised Putin and nominated people seen as friendly toward Moscow to senior administration posts, would seek to roll back the measures which mark a new post-Cold War low in U.S.-Russian ties.
Russian officials have portrayed the sanctions as a last act of a lame-duck president and suggested that Trump could reverse them when he takes over the White House.
"Further steps towards the restoration of Russian-American relations will be built on the basis of the policy which the administration of President D. Trump will carry out," said Putin.
In a separate message of New Year congratulations to Trump, he said Russia-U.S. relations were an important factor for maintaining global safety and stability.
The U.S. sanctions also closed two Russian compounds in New York and Maryland that the administration said were used by Russian personnel for "intelligence-related purposes".
However, a former Russian Foreign Ministry employee told Reuters that the facility in Maryland was a dacha used by diplomatic staff and their children.
Lavrov also proposed banning U.S. diplomats from using a dacha in Moscow's prestigious waterfront park area, Serebryany Bor.
But Putin said Russia would not prohibit U.S. diplomats and their families from their usual vacation spots. "Moreover, I invite all children of American diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year and Christmas party in the Kremlin," he said.
Obama, a Democrat, had promised consequences after U.S. intelligence officials blamed Russia for hacks intended to influence the 2016 election. Officials pointed the finger directly at Putin for personally directing the efforts and primarily targeting Democrats.
Washington put sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies, the GRU and the FSB, four GRU officers and three companies that he said "provided material support to the GRU's cyber operations".
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was more outspoken in his criticism. "It is regrettable that the Obama administration, which started out by restoring our ties, is ending its term in an anti-Russia death throes. RIP," he wrote on his official Facebook page.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the Obama administration "a group of embittered and dimwitted foreign policy losers".
Obama said Americans should be alarmed by Russia's actions in the U.S. election.
"These actions follow repeated private and public warnings that we have issued to the Russian government, and are a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests in violation of established international norms of behavior," he said in a statement from Hawaii, where he is on vacation.
The sanctions were the strongest response yet by the his administration to Russian cyber activities. However, a senior administration official acknowledged that Trump could reverse them and allow Russian intelligence officials back into the United States once he takes office. —REUTERS