MOSCOW (REUTERS) - President Vladimir Putin refrained on Friday (Dec 30) from retaliating for the US expulsion of 35 suspected Russian spies, putting the onus on Donald Trump to help solve a crisis over Russian cyber attacks when he takes over the White House next month.
As a Sunday deadline approached for dozens of Russians to leave the United States, Putin said he would wait for the actions of Trump, who takes office on Jan 20, before responding.
US President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered the expulsion of the 35 Russians and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over their involvement in hacking political groups in the Nov 8 US presidential election.
The CIA and others in the US intelligence community say the cyber attacks were intended to aid Trump. Russia says the hacking accusations are untrue.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier on Friday proposed Putin expel the same number of US diplomats in response to Obama’s measures but Putin rejected that.
“We will not expel anyone,” Putin said in a statement. He said Russia reserved the right to retaliate but would not “descend to the level” of “irresponsible diplomacy.”
“Further steps towards the restoration of Russian-American relations will be built on the basis of the policy which the administration of President D. Trump will carry out,” he said.
Trump has repeatedly praised Putin and nominated people seen as friendly toward Moscow to senior administration posts but it was unclear whether he would seek to roll back Obama’s actions which mark a new post-Cold War low in US-Russian ties.
Trump has brushed aside allegations from the CIA and other intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the cyber attacks.
“It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” Trump said on Thursday but added he would meet with intelligence officials next week.
US intelligence agencies say Russia was behind hacks into Democratic Party organizations and operatives before the presidential election. US intelligence officials say the Russian cyber attacks aimed to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Russian officials have portrayed the sanctions as a last act of a lame-duck president and suggested the Republican Trump could reverse them when he takes over from Obama, a Democrat.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the Obama administration “a group of embittered and dimwitted foreign policy losers”.
Should Trump seek to heal the rift with Russia, he might encounter opposition in Congress, including from fellow Republicans.
Republican John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has scheduled a hearing for Thursday on foreign cyber threats. Other senior Republicans, as well as Democrats, have urged a tough response to Moscow.
A total of 96 Russians are expected to leave the United States including expelled diplomats and their families, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
MOVEMENT AT COMPOUNDS
As part of the sanctions, Obama told Russia to close two compounds in New York and Maryland that the administration said were used by Russian personnel for “intelligence-related purposes.”
In both locations, the Russians were given until noon ET (1am in Saturday, Singapore time) on Friday to vacate the premises. By late morning, convoys of trucks, buses and black sedans with diplomatic licence plates were exiting without incident. Some of the passengers smiled and waved as they rode off.
A former Russian Foreign Ministry employee told Reuters that the facility in Maryland was a dacha used by diplomatic staff and their children. The 18ha complex includes a Georgian-style brick mansion, swimming pool, tennis courts and cottages for embassy staff.
Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said the closures showed the US government lacked family values.
“I think it’s quite scandalous that they chose to go after our kids, you know? They know full well that those two facilities... they’re vacation facilities for our kids. And this is Christmas time,” he told reporters.
Putin said he was inviting all children of American diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year and Christmas party in the Kremlin.
In a separate message of New Year congratulations to Trump, Putin said Russia-US relations were an important factor for maintaining global safety and stability.
Obama had promised consequences after US intelligence officials blamed Russia for hacks intended to influence the 2016 election. Officials accused Putin of personally directing the efforts and primarily targeting Democrats.
Washington also put sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies, the GRU and the FSB, four GRU officers and three companies that Obama said “provided material support to the GRU’s cyber operations”.
Incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told Fox News he did not condone foreign governments hacking US institutions.
“It’s wrong and it’s something we don’t agree with,” Priebus said. “However, it would be nice if we could get to a place where the intelligence community in unison can tell us what it is that has been going on and what the investigation was and what it has led to so that we can respond.”