Putin says Russia won’t expel U.S. diplomats

Russian President Vladimir Putin has condemned a new round of U.S. sanctions against Russia, but said Moscow won’t retaliate by expelling American diplomats.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered 35 Russian diplomats to leave, as well as the closure of two facilities, within 72 hours to retaliate against alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election after American political sites and email accounts were hacked.

Putin, in a statement on the Kremlin’s website on Friday, referred to the new sanctions as a “provocation aimed to further undermine Russian-American relations.”

But he said Russia would not expel American diplomats in retaliation, as the Russian foreign minister had suggested Friday.

“The Russian diplomats returning home will spend the new year holidays with their relatives and dear ones,” Putin said. “At home. We will not create problems for U.S. diplomats. We will not expel anybody.”

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Tourists take pictures of the Kremlin as they visit the Red Square in downtown Moscow on Friday, Dec. 30. Putin invited U.S. diplomats and their families to the Christmas and New Year’s parties at the Kremlin. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

Festering diplomatic showdown

The diplomatic showdown between Washington and Moscow had been festering even before the Nov. 8 presidential election elevated Donald Trump to the presidency, and puts pressure on the billionaire American businessman not to let Russia off the hook after he takes office on Jan. 20.

Putin said he would wait for the actions of Trump, who will officially become commander in chief on Jan. 20, before deciding on any further steps in relations with the United States.

Russia’s government had threatened retaliation, and it continues to deny U.S. accusations that it hacked and stole emails to try to help Trump win. Trump said the U.S. should move on, but in a sign he is no longer totally brushing off the allegations, he planned to meet with U.S. intelligence leaders next week to learn more.

Putin’s statement came hours after Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested a tit-for-tat expulsion in televised remarks.

‘I am inviting all children of U.S. diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year and Christmas parties in the Kremlin.’
– Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president

He said early Friday that Russia’s Foreign Ministry and other agencies have suggested that Putin order expulsion of 31 employees of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and four diplomats from the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg. Another suggestion was to bar American diplomats from using their summer retreat on the outskirts of Moscow and a warehouse south of Moscow.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had suggested expelling 35 U.S. diplomats in a tit-for-tat move after the U.S. announced Thursday it would expel 35 Russian diplomats. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

But in the website remarks, Russia would not prevent the families and children from using the customary rest and leisure facilities and sites during the New Year holidays, Putin said about the diplomats.

“Moreover, I am inviting all children of U.S. diplomats accredited in Russia to the new year and Christmas parties in the Kremlin,” he said.​

Russians celebrate both Christmas and New Year’s Eve, but the day before the new year has been the main holiday there since Soviet times.

The sanctions are the strongest actions the Obama administration has taken to date to retaliate for a cyberattack, and more comprehensive than last year’s sanctions on North Korea after it hacked Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The new penalties add to existing U.S. sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine that have impaired Russia’s economy, but had limited impact on Putin’s behaviour.

Obama said the response to Russia wasn’t over.

“All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions,” said Obama, who was vacationing in Hawaii. He added, “Such activities have consequences.”

He said the U.S. could take further, covert action — a thinly veiled reference to a counterstrike in cyberspace the U.S. has been considering.

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.


Lavrov had suggested booting out 31 people from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, seen here, and four from the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

‘Persona non grata’

Obama said the State Department declared as “persona non grata” 35 Russian intelligence operatives.

A senior U.S. official told Reuters the expulsions would come from the Russian Embassy in Washington and the consulate in San Francisco.

The Russians were given 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 is also closing two Russian compounds, including an 18-hectare complex in Maryland that includes a Georgian-style brick mansion, swimming pool, tennis courts and cottages for embassy staff.

The administration said the facilities 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 country house used by diplomatic staff and their children.

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.

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