US sanctions on Russia a hot potato for Donald Trump

WASHINGTON - Relations between Russia and the United States have hit a new low with President Barack Obama expelling 35 Russian diplomats and slapping fresh sanctions on Russian security and quasi-government entities and individuals.

The executive order was in retaliation for alleged Russian hacking to disrupt the Nov 8 US presidential election.

The move hands President-elect Donald Trump, who takes power on Jan 20, a problem.

Mr Trump, who wants a better relationship with Russia, and has been accused by critics of being soft on Russia's strongman President Vladimir Putin, could cancel the executive order.

But his apparent warmth towards Russia - including appointing Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil CEO who knows Mr Putin well, as his Secretary of State - has raised eyebrows even among some Republicans.

The sanctions have broad bipartisan support. "We have to send a clear message. We will not be pushed around,'' Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said on CNN. Separately, he tweeted: "We need to defend our election system, our democracy & our country."

 
 

In a brief statement, Mr Trump said: "It's time for our country to move on to bigger and better things. 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."

If Mr Trump moves to cancel the executive order quickly, he will risk playing into the hands of his critics on both sides of the increasingly bitter political divide in the US.

Mr Ian Bremmer, New York University professor and founder of the Eurasia Group, said in a tweet that it will be hard for Mr Trump to "reassure Putin all will be better on the 20th".

The measures invite reciprocal action, including the expulsion of US diplomats from Russia.

Russia's Embassy in the US quoted Mr Putin's Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov as saying: "There is no doubt that Russia's adequate and mirror response will make Washington officials feel very uncomfortable as well."

Responding to the prospect of "hastily" imposed sanctions two days before Mr Obama's order, Russia's foreign ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova said the sanctions would "create problems for the incoming Trump administration and complicate its relations on the international stage, as well as to force it to adopt an anti-Russia policy'.'

Soon after the fresh sanctions were announced, Ms Zakharova was quoted in reports as saying: "It's not an administration, it's a group of foreign policy losers, angry and ignorant."

The sanctions came in the form of an amendment to a previous executive order, on the back of a 13-page joint analysis report by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation released on Thursday afternoon in the US detailing what has been described as "significant malicious cyber-enabled activities" by Russian entities on Democratic Party organisations.

The report provides details on tools and systems used by Russian civilian and intelligence agencies to "compromise and exploit networks and endpoints associated with the US election, as well as a range of US government, political, and private sector entities".

"The increasing use of cyber-enabled means to undermine democratic processes at home and abroad, as exemplified by Russia's recent activities, has made clear that a tool explicitly targeting attempts to interfere with elections is… warranted," the White House said in a statement.

Russia already faces sanctions from Washington and other Western nations over the annexation in 2014 of the former Ukrainian territory of Crimea.

Ms Lisa Monaco, a top adviser to President Obama on homeland security and counter terrorism, told CNN a ''reversal of sanctions ... would be highly unusual".

''Sanctions usually remain in place until the activity and the reasons for them being imposed in the first place have been removed."