By JOSH LEDERMAN and NATALIYA VASILYEVA
President Vladimir Putin castigated the United States on Friday for imposing sanctions and expelling Russian diplomats amid allegations of Russian meddling in the American presidential election, but said no U.S. diplomats will be ousted in reprisal for President Barack Obama’s moves in the wake of hacking attacks.
In a burgeoning controversy surrounding complaints from the Obama administration about a cyberattack against America’s political system, the White House on Thursday unleashed a string of sanctions and coupled them with an order that 35 Russians be expelled.
Putin, however, said on Friday that Moscow would not eject American diplomats in response to what he described as “provocation aimed at further undermining Russian-American relations” less than a month before Donald Trump is to take over the White House.
The decision came as a surprise; tit-for-tat expulsions are common diplomatic practice and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had suggested hours before Putin’s announcement that Russia would oust 31 American diplomats.
“The Russian diplomats returning home will spend the New Year holidays with their relatives and dear ones,” Putin said in a statement published on the Kremlin website. “We will not create problems for U.S. diplomats. We will not expel anybody.”
He added: “Moreover, I am inviting all children of U.S. diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year and Christmas parties at the Kremlin.”
Putin appeared to aim at playing a long game and at making a barbed reminder that Obama is a lame duck.
“Putin’s asymmetric response to Obama’s new sanctions is an investment in the incoming Trump presidency,” Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said on Twitter. “A different kind of tit-for-tat: even as Obama seeks to constrain Trump in his Russia policy, Putin counters that step with a show of magnanimity.”
The diplomatic confrontation between Washington and Moscow, which had been festering even before Trump won the Nov. 8 presidential election, puts pressure on the billionaire businessman not to let Russia off the hook after he takes office on Jan. 20.
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 was no longer totally brushing off the allegations, he plans to meet with U.S. intelligence leaders next week to learn more.
In his statement published on Friday, Putin said Russia will not bar the diplomats’ “families and their children from using their favorite places of recreation during the holidays.”
New Year’s Eve has been the main holiday in Russia since Soviet times. Russians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7
Obama on Thursday ordered sanctions against the GRU and FSB, the Russian intelligence agencies the U.S. said were involved in the hacking attacks. In an elaborately coordinated response by at least five federal agencies, the Obama administration also sought to expose Russia’s cyber tactics with a detailed technical report and hinted it might still launch a covert counterattack.
“All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions,” said Obama, who was vacationing in Hawaii.
Yet the sanctions could easily be pulled back by Trump, who has insisted that Obama and Democrats are merely attempting to delegitimize his election.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev charged earlier on Friday that Washington has become immersed in “anti-Russian death throes.”
Medvedev, who focused on improving U.S.-Russia ties when he was president from 2008-2012, called the latest diplomatic breach “sad” in a Twitter post.
U.S. relations with Russia have suffered during Obama’s presidency as he and Putin tussled over Ukraine, Edward Snowden and Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, took to Facebook to call the Obama administration “a group of foreign policy losers, angry and ignorant.”
As part of the punishment leveled against Moscow, the U.S. kicked out 35 Russian diplomats, in response to Russia’s harassment of U.S. diplomats. Russian recreational compounds in New York and Maryland that U.S. officials said were being used for intelligence were also shut down.
It was the strongest retaliation the Obama administration has taken 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 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Senior Obama administration officials said that even with the penalties, the U.S. had reason to believe Russia would keep hacking other nations’ elections and might well try to hack American elections again in 2018 or 2020. The officials briefed reporters on a conference call on condition of anonymity.
Though the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a joint report on “Russian malicious cyber activity” the government still has not released a broader report Obama has promised detailing Russia’s efforts to interfere with U.S. elections.
The report has been eagerly anticipated by those hoping to make it politically untenable for Trump to continue questioning whether Russia was really involved.
Obama’s move puts Trump in the position of having to decide whether to roll back the measures once in office. U.S. officials suggested that building the case against Russia now would make it harder for Trump to justify easing up. Putin mentioned on Friday that Russia will be taking steps in the bilateral relations depending on what Trump does once he’s sworn in.
Lederman reported from Honolulu. Associated Press writers Tami Abdollah in Washington and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.