President Vladimir Putin said Russia won’t expel any U.S. diplomats in response to Washington’s earlier expulsion of 35 Russians and imposition of U.S. sanctions over alleged cyberattacks during the 2016 presidential election.
James Marson and
James Marson and
Updated Dec. 30, 2016 7:45 p.m. ET
MOSCOW—President Vladimir Putin said Russia wouldn’t expel U.S. diplomats in response to new U.S. sanctions despite the recommendation of his foreign minister, a move that seemed aimed at embarrassing the Obama Administration while expressing hope for stronger U.S. relations once President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
Mr. Putin’s decision came after Russia’s top diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, said in a nationally televised address that Russia must respond to the U.S. moves, which included kicking out 35 Russians it alleged were intelligence operatives serving under diplomatic cover. Instead Mr. Putin chose not to act, and invited the children of U.S. envoys to a New Year’s celebration held at a concert hall on the grounds of the Kremlin.
The Russian leader’s move appeared choreographed to highlight an attempt at rebuilding ties with the U.S. that have been at their worst since the end of the Cold War, strained by allegations of Russian hacking and aggression in Ukraine. But Mr. Putin reserved the right to respond in the future.
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 on Friday slammed the new U.S. measures, which included imposing new sanctions on Russian agencies and companies, saying that they were aimed at further undermining U.S.-Russian relations. “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.
Both Democrats and Republicans have been warning Mr. Trump that Mr. Putin is no friend of the U.S. and have signaled that they may step in to tighten sanctions on Russia if the Trump administration insists on taking a conciliatory approach to Mr. Putin.
Mr. Trump “can say all the nice things he wants, but that’s not going to change Vladimir Putin’s efforts to have a Greater Russia,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told MSNBC on Friday. “He will be looking at a Senate that is very resolute in its views and may very well act independent of what the executive branch has done.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) has also said that Russia doesn’t share America’s interests. While he welcomed the Obama administration’s decision to impose the new sanctions, he hasn’t said whether he thinks additional sanctions or other steps are warranted.
The clearest picture of congressional sentiment will emerge next week, when Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R., Ariz.) plans to hold a hearing on foreign cyber threats to the U.S. Mr. McCain has said that Russia and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee will be part of the focus. Among those scheduled to testify are Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Adm. Michael Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency.
The Kremlin’s decision Friday 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. Americans serving on government business in Russia are briefed on the dangers of being put in compromising situations by Russian intelligence.
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. Footage showed the Russian pinning the person, described as a U.S. diplomat, to the ground. He is then seen sliding across the ground in an attempt to get inside the embassy.
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, tailing him and confronting him with hostile questions. 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.
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 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 on Friday accused the U.S. of having no evidence.
Mr. Putin said the expelled Russian diplomats will spend the New Year holiday at home with family. “We will not create problems for American diplomats. We will not send any home,” he said.
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.
Most of the 35 suspected intelligence operatives heading back to Russia on Saturday will be from Russia’s Washington embassy, with about a dozen departing from San Francisco, according to a statement on Facebook from the Russian consulate in San Francisco.
The Obama administration gave the Russians 72 hours to leave the country. “No tickets left for shorter and more comfortable itineraries,” the Facebook post said.
“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. Mr. Putin said diplomats could use “leisure sites” over the holidays, without specifying which locations he was referring to.
“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.
—Siobhan Hughes and Felicia Schwartz contributed to this article.
Write to James Marson at email@example.com