MOSCOW (Reuters) – 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.
Trump has brushed aside allegations from the CIA and other intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the cyber attacks. He said on Thursday he would meet with intelligence officials soon. “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” Trump said in a statement.
“Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation,” he said, without mentioning Russia.
U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia was behind hacks into Democratic Party organizations and operatives before the Nov. 8 presidential election. U.S. intelligence officials say the Russian cyber attacks were aimed at helping Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told Fox News he did not condone foreign governments hacking U.S. institutions.
“It’s wrong and it’s something we don’t agree with,” Priebus said. “However, it would be nice if we could get to a place where the intelligence community in unison can tell us what it is that has been going on and what the investigation was and what it has led to so that we can respond.”
“PERSONA NON GRATA”
Obama said the State Department declared as “persona non grata” 35 Russian intelligence operatives and was closing the two Russian compounds. The 45-acre complex in Maryland includes a Georgian-style brick mansion, swimming pool, tennis courts and cottages for embassy staff.
A senior U.S. official told Reuters the expulsions would come from the Russian embassy in Washington and consulate in San Francisco.
The Russians have 72 hours to leave the United States, the official said. Access to the two compounds will be denied to all Russian officials as of noon on Friday.
The State Department has long complained that Russian security agents and traffic police have harassed U.S. diplomats in Moscow, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the issue with Putin and Lavrov.
The U.S. official declined to name the Russian diplomats who would be affected, although it is understood that Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, will not be one of those expelled.
Obama said the actions announced on Thursday were just the beginning.
“These actions are not the sum total of our response to Russia’s aggressive activities. We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized,” Obama said.
A report detailing Russia’s interference in the 2016 election as well as cyber attacks in previous election cycles would be delivered to Congress in the coming days, he added.
(Additional reporting by Dustin Volz, Yeganeh Torbati, Eric Beech and Nikolai Pavlov in Washington and Katya Golubkova and Svetlana Reiter in Moscow; Writing by Anna Willard; Editing by David Stamp)
IMAGE: U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk into a photo opportunity before their meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque