Putin Responds: Russia Won’t Expel Diplomats; Trump Praises Decision
(WSJ/Marson & Ferris-Rotman) MOSCOW—President Vladimir Putin said Russia wouldn’t expel any U.S. diplomats in response to the Obama administration’s decision to kick out dozens of alleged Russian operatives, in an unexpected decision designed to repair relations with the U.S. under President-elect Donald Trump.
Mr. Putin on Friday slammed the new U.S. measures as “aimed at the further undermining of Russian-American relations,” adding that Russia reserved the right to respond.
But rather than deporting diplomats in tit-for-tat retaliation, he instead invited the children of U.S. envoys to a New Year celebration for kids held at a concert hall on the grounds of the Kremlin.
“We will formulate further steps in restoring Russian-American relations according to the policy that the administration of President D. Trump conducts,” Mr. Putin said.
Mr. Trump praised Mr. Putin for his restraint in a Twitter message posted Friday. “Great move on delay (by V. Putin),” Mr. Trump wrote. “I always knew he was very smart!”
Mr. Putin’s muted response came as something of a surprise after the foreign ministry signaled it would ask for measures to expel U.S. diplomats from Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The Russian leader’s rejection of the harsher proposal by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared choreographed to highlight the president’s apparent magnanimity. It also underscores the Kremlin’s hopes that Mr. Trump’s friendlier tone toward Russia could allow them to rebuild ties that have been at their worst since the end of the Cold War, strained by allegations of Russian hacking and aggression in Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s effort also contrasts sharply with Russia’s previous treatment of U.S. diplomats in Russia. The State Department earlier this year expelled two Russian officials, citing Russian mistreatment of U.S. diplomats.
U.S. diplomats have long complained of harassment and intrusive surveillance in Russia. Earlier this year, Russian national television broadcast footage appearing to show a Russian police officer tackling a U.S. official outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow; the Russian foreign ministry claimed he was a spy.
Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, was a frequent target of state television camera crews who stalked the diplomat and cast him in an unflattering light. He said Friday that Mr. Putin’s move appeared aimed at swaying Mr. Trump.
“He thinks he will have the ability with Trump to pursue important objectives defined by Putin, and why mess that up?,” he said. “For Putin the objectives are pretty clear: the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions, getting Trump to agree with what he’s doing in Syria and his dream of dreams—the recognition of Crimea,” he added, referring to the peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said she hoped the U.S. move was “the last thing that the current (U.S.) administration has done to worsen bilateral relations,” according to Interfax news agency.
The Obama administration imposed new sanctions on Russian intelligence agencies and expelled what the State Department said were 35 intelligence operatives allegedly serving under diplomatic cover in the U.S. over Russia’s alleged use of cyberattacks to interfere with the presidential election.
The moves by Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin show how both leaders are trying to shape future U.S.-Russia relations before Mr. Trump takes office, said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center
“Putin is looking beyond Obama, and has sought to counter Obama’s sanctions in a way that would not hurt chances of better relations under Trump,” Mr. Trenin said. “Trump finds himself in an interesting situation. He is being tested simultaneously both by his predecessor and a foreign leader.”
The State Department also notified Moscow that, as of noon on Friday, it would be denied access to two Russian government-owned compounds in the U.S. In return, Mr. Lavrov had said Americans should be banned from using their vacation home near Moscow.
The White House said in a statement that cyberattacks targeting the U.S. elections “could only have been directed by the highest levels of the Russian government.”
Russia has denied involvement, and Mr. Lavrov, in televised comments, accused the U.S. of having no evidence.
“The outgoing American administration of Barack Obama, who have accused Russia of all mortal sins and tried to blame us for the failure of its foreign policy initiatives, among other things, has groundlessly made additional accusations that Russia interfered in the U.S. election campaign at the state level,” he said.
U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and the email account of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. Officials said the sanctions imposed Thursday were a response to Russia’s election interference, its meddling in American foreign policy more broadly and its harassment of U.S. diplomats.
The U.S. had previously imposed sanctions on Russia over its military interventions in Ukraine. The two countries have also clashed over Russia’s military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.