Putin says Russia won't expel US diplomats in tit-for-tat measure

President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photo: AP)

Putin says he's waiting for Trump as he opts not to expel US diplomats

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.

October 2016

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.

July 2016

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.

January 2015

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.

March 2014

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.

May 2013

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.

January 2013

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.

June 2010

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.

March 2001

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.

Trump praises Putin for refusing to retaliate on sanctions

Donald Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday for holding off on retaliation for U.S. sanctions regarding Russian hacking during the presidential election.

"Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!" the president-elect tweeted mid-day.

The Russian embassy in the United States retweeted Trump's post.

The praise came a day after President Obama, responding to Russian efforts to intervene in the 2016 election via cyber-espionage, announced economic sanctions on Russian intelligence officials and institutions, the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats suspected of being spies, and the shuttering of two Russian facilities in the United States.

While Russian officials recommended expelling U.S. officials from their country, Putin announced Friday he would not do so, partly in deference to the incoming Trump administration.

Trump has questioned whether Russia was involved in hacking the emails of Democratic Party officials, and he brushed off the sanctions imposed by Obama.

“It's time for our country to move on to bigger and better things," Trump said in a statement Thursday night.

He added, "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."

That briefing will be scheduled for next week, Trump transition spokesman Sean Spicer said.

U.S. intelligence officials have accused the Russians of hacking Democratic emails in an effort to help Trump win the election.

While Putin and Russia deny the allegations, the Obama administration is a preparing a report on the cyber attacks, and Congress is likely to conduct an investigation of its own.

During the campaign, Democrats said Trump was too friendly with Putin; Trump said he only wants to improve U.S.-Russian relations.

Trump tweeted about the Russian leader on a day in which he continued to hold meetings at his Mar-a-Lago estate in South Florida about plans for his inauguration and administration.

The president-elect has four Cabinet-level slots to fill: director of National Intelligence, secretary of Agriculture, U.S. trade representative and secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Trump is also planning a New Year's Eve reception at Mar-a-Lago, with guests including Sylvester Stallone and Quincy Jones.

The president-elect is scheduled to return to New York City on New Year's Day.

Vladimir Putin’s Cease-Fire in Syria Boxes Out Barack Obama

Russia and Turkey announced early Thursday they had secured a cease-fire agreement for the civil war in Syria, potentially clearing the way to a peace deal and leaving little, if any, role for the U.S. to play in the future of the war-torn country.

The American failure to find a diplomatic or military solution to the conflict, which rages adjacent to an extraordinarily complicated international effort to defeat the Islamic State group, has left some traditional allies in the region worried about what leverage the U.S. has left to protect their interests in the Middle East.

Very few details have emerged about the agreement, which was organized by Moscow and Ankara and backed the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. Reuters reported Wednesday that the plan could involve splitting the county into semi-autonomous Russian, Turkish and Iranian zones of influence within Assad's government. Perhaps the most notable question centers on the involvement of the Free Syrian Army, the U.S.-backed umbrella organization of the opposition movement which has fractured in recent months. It denies having participated in the cease-fire talks.

Moscow's leadership on the agreement, however, follows its deep involvement in Syria over the last year that has successfully shirked American calls for Assad to step down. So it's also unclear how the U.S. could exercise any leverage over the events in Syria in the future or encourage any of the actors involved to consider American interests, including issuing humanitarian aid to the 8 million displaced Syrians displaced from their homes, supporting willing partners on the ground to fight the Islamic State group, and creating a unity government.

"If the cease-fire does spread to the point where any settlement begins, we're going to find ourselves in the very awkward position of being the largest single aid donor to Syria and having somehow to deal in humanitarian and recovery terms with a government and structure we had no hand in creating," says Anthony Cordesman, a former senior adviser to the departments of State and Defense, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 'That's certainly going to create future problems."

The Obama administration has had few successes in and around Syria it could use to inspire confidence among its traditional allies about its assurances to Israel and predominantly Sunni nations like Saudi Arabia that it will help offset Iran and its proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon. The president did not follow through on his infamous 2012 "red line" pledge to involve the U.S. militarily in the Syrian civil war if the Assad regime used chemical weapons. It did not respond with any significance to Russia's military intervention in Syria last year. Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to negotiate a peace deal have failed. And the U.S. did not take any position during the recent siege of Aleppo, which most Arab countries viewed as a de facto genocide.

Perhaps the most success the U.S. has had in the region are its efforts to rebuild the Iraqi army, which has chased the Islamic State group back to the doorstep of Mosul, the country's second-biggest city and the terror network's central hub there. However, any successes in the overall campaign against the Islamic State group will be undone without some form of political stability in neighboring Syria and success in coordinating a ground assault against its symbolic capital of Raqqa.

Complicating Middle Eastern perception of the U.S. is the presidential transition. In three weeks, Donald Trump will take the oath of office after openly questioning during the campaign whether the U.S. should simply defer to Russia on Syria.

Further limiting American military capability in the region was the withdrawal of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, leaving the U.S. without an aircraft carrier in the Middle East for weeks, perhaps even months, according to Defense News.

Even if there were unlimited military options, the Obama administration has not yet revealed a detailed policy for Syria – if it has one – and the sheer number of fighting groups reportedly operating amid the six-year-old conflict makes it difficult to determine friend from foe.

"This is not exactly a period in which you can either conduct radical new negotiations or re-establish confidence," Cordesman says. "Technically, if [the Obama administration] is not really a lame duck, it certainly isn't a very decisive one."

Following a summit in Moscow with delegates from Turkey, Iran and Syria last week, Putin claimed Thursday that Russia had brokered a cease-fire agreement between the Syrian government and "the armed opposition," along with "a package of measures to control the cease-fire" and "also a declaration of readiness to enter peace talks on Syrian conflict settlement."

"No doubt, the agreements reached are fragile and demand special attention and assistance with the goal of preservation and development," Putin said, according to state news service Tass. "But nevertheless, this is a notable result of our joint work, efforts of the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and our partner in the regions."

"We welcome this development," Turkey's foreign ministry said in a statement. "It's very important that all parties conform to this agreement. Turkey and Russia will jointly follow the cessation of hostilities as they have given strong support to it."

On Thursday State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement he hoped the cease-fire would hold.

"Any effort that stops the violence, saves lives, and creates the conditions for renewed and productive political negotiations would be welcome," Toner said, according to Politico.

American officials have expressed concern about Turkey's involvement in regional conflicts in recent years, straining the relationship between the NATO countries over Kurdish fighting groups that the U.S. considers the most viable in defeating the Islamic State group on the ground but which Ankara roundly sees as terrorists bent on forming an independent state. Tensions have heightened since a failed coup in Turkey in July, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attributes to a Turkish political dissident in exile in the U.S. and whom the U.S. has so far refused to extradite to Turkey despite Erdogan's insistence.

Enthusiasm in Turkey for Russia's cease-fire agreement comes a year after Ankara ordered one of its planes shoot down a Russian fighter for crossing into its airspace. It also follows new claims by Erdogan that the U.S. has provided weapons directly to Kurdish groups it considers terrorist organizations, as well as to the Islamic State group. State Department spokesman Mark Toner reportedly called these "ludicrous."

Now, Russia claims it has established a new hotline so the countries' leaders can better coordinate on Syria, raising concerns about deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Turkey as Erdogan continues to crack down on civil liberties in the name of restoring order after the coup attempts.

Russia was expected to reveal more details of the cease-fire agreement in recent days.

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