Shaun Walker in Moscow and Esther Addley in London
Vladimir Putin has refused to engage in tit-for-tat diplomacy after the US expelled 35 Russian diplomats amid a row over cyber hacking.
Just hours after the Russian foreign minster said he was recommending a symmetrical response, Putin said his country had “every right” to make such a move but that he would not “drop to this level of irresponsible diplomacy”.
He said his government would instead wait to see how relations developed under the incoming president, Donald Trump.
“We will make further steps to help resurrect Russian-American relations based on the policies that the administration of Trump will pursue,” the Russian president said in a statement on the Kremlin’s website.
Putin, mindful that Trump will be in the White House in just three weeks went on, in an almost teasing way, to wish Barack Obama and his family, Trump and the American people a happy new year. He invited “all the children of American diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year and Christmas celebrations in the Kremlin”.
His stance was pointedly welcomed by the president-elect.
Putin’s pointedly magnanimous intervention came after a day in which Russian officials launched increasingly angry invective at Barack Obama and his administration.
On Thursday, the outgoing US administration had announced a package of measures targeting Russia in retaliation for cyber-attacks US intelligence agencies believe were directed by Moscow to help Trump get elected. Russian officials have repeatedly denied the claims.
Sanctions were placed on Russia’s GRU and FSB intelligence services, and individuals and companies linked to them, while 35 diplomats the US believes are engaging in espionage were given 72 hours to leave the country.
Maria Zakharova, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, launched a stinging attack on the outgoing US administration, writing on Facebook: “The people who have spent eight years in the White House are not an administration – they are a group of foreign policy losers, embittered and shortsighted. Today, Obama officially proved this.”
Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, wrote on Facebook: “It is regrettable that the Obama administration, which started out by restoring our ties, is ending its term in an anti-Russia agony. RIP.” The Russian embassy in London tweeted a picture of a duck with the word “lame” written on it, and called the Obama administration “hapless”.
But Putin’s response was surprisingly measured. He said any Russian retaliation would be postponed in the hope that bilateral relations improve when Trump takes office in January.
Diplomatic expulsions are normally met with reciprocal action, and the stage seemed set for a strong Russian response. In 2001, the George W Bush administration expelled 51 Russian diplomats it said were spies. Russia responded by telling 50 US diplomats to leave Russia.
“Reciprocity is the law in diplomacy and international relations,” Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said before Putin’s statement. Lavrov said he was recommending that Putin order the expulsion of 31 diplomats from the US embassy in Moscow and four from the consulate in St Petersburg.
Lavrov also suggested Russia would cut off the use of a warehouse in Moscow and an embassy dacha on the outskirts of the Russian capital, in response to US moves to deny Russia access to two recreational compounds in the US.
However, Putin said this too would not happen for now. “We are not going to make problems for American diplomats. We are not going to expel anyone. We are not going to forbid their families and children from using their usual relaxation places during the new year’s holidays,” Putin said.
Russian officials were widely quoted praising Putin’s “wise” move and hoping for better relations under a Trump presidency. Sergei Zheleznyak, an MP and member of the foreign affairs committee, called Obama a “bad Santa” and said he wanted to “ruin the holiday period for lots of people”.
Russia plans to send a special government plane to the US to pick up the diplomats affected by the US expulsion order. Earlier, a diplomatic source told Interfax that many of those affected were struggling to find tickets back to Russia as planes were full because of the holidays. The foreign ministry said 96 Russians, including the 35 diplomats and their family members, were being forced to leave the US.
US intelligence services believe Russia ordered cyber-attacks on the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton’s campaign and other political organisations, in an attempt to influence the election in favour of Trump. Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, has been at the centre of the accusations.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden, who now lives in Russia, wrote on Twitter that the evidence against the country released so far was insufficiently persuasive and called on US authorities to release more.
“Few techs doubt that Russians could have a hand in hacks, but public policy requires public evidence. Trump can’t roll back declassification,” wrote Snowden.
While denying accusations of interference, Putin claimed last week to have always known Trump would win.
“Nobody believed he’d win. Except us, of course. We always believed,” he said, during his annual press conference. Putin has praised Trump and expressed cautious optimism that relations could improve when he enters the White House.
Trump will now have to decide how to calibrate his Russia policy when he enters the White House. He has previously brushed off criticism over his fawning attitude towards Putin, and his tone was not changed by the recent US intelligence assessments of interference.
In a statement earlier this month, Trump said he had received a “very nice letter” from Putin wishing him a happy Christmas, and said Putin’s “thoughts are so correct” on the need to improve bilateral relations. Trump has also voiced approval of Russia’s intervention in Syria.
Trump has dismissed reports of Russian interference in the election. On Thursday, he said: “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.”
He added, however, that “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”.
Timeline of protests and exclusions
Thursday’s expulsion is the latest in a long line of diplomatic incidents between Russia and the US since the turn of the millennium.
Washington complains to Moscow after two US diplomats allegedly have their drinks spiked with date-rape drugs while attending a UN anti-corruption convention in St Petersburg.
Two Russian officials are expelled in retaliation for what the State Department says was an attack on an US diplomat in Moscow by a Russian police officer. Washington says it is the latest incident in an escalating campaign of harassment against US embassy staff “in an effort to disrupt our diplomatic and consular operations”. Russia in turn expels two US citizens, including the man who was attacked.
The US claims to have cracked a clandestine Russian spy ring based in New York. Two accused men, protected by diplomatic immunity, leave the US and a third is arrested.
The US and other world leaders decide to exclude Russia from the G8 following its annexation of Crimea. The Russian foreign ministry says the country does not “see a great misfortune” in the expulsion.
Russia expels a US embassy employee, Ryan Fogle, days after parading him on state TV claiming he was a CIA spy who had been trying to recruit a Russian counter-terrorism officer.
Days later, the FSB names a man it says is the CIA station chief in Moscow, in what appears to be a calculated snub to Washington, weeks after the two countries agreed to share intelligence over the Boston marathon bombers, who had roots in Russia’s north Caucasus region.
An anonymous FSB officer reveals in May that four months earlier, in January 2013, Moscow had expelled a suspected spy working undercover at the US embassy.
Ten people living in the north-eastern US are arrested and charged as “sleeper” spies, who had assumed deep-cover identities on long-term assignments for the Russian intelligence agencies. Among them is Anna Chapman, who gained British citizenship when she was married to a Briton. This was later revoked. All plead guilty to conspiracy and they are handed over to Russia in exchange for four alleged double-agents in a prisoner swap on the tarmac at Vienna airport.
Washington expels 50 Russian diplomats following the arrest in a Virginia suburb of Robert Hanssen, an FBI intelligence officer accused and later convicted of acting as a double agent for Moscow for 15 years. Moscow retaliates by expelling a similar number of US citizens. (The Guardian)