MOSCOW — In a rare break from the diplomatic tradition of reciprocal punishment, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday he would not deport U.S. diplomats in a tit-for-tat response to U.S. hacking sanctions, as Russia looks to cultivate relations with the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
“We won’t create problems for American diplomats,” Putin said in a statement released by his press service Friday afternoon, adding that Russia retained the right to punish U.S. diplomats in the future. He said he would “plan further steps for restoring the Russian-American relationship based on the policies enacted by the administration of President Donald Trump.”
In a terse response, the State Department said Friday: “We have seen President Putin’s remarks. We have nothing further to add.”
Putin’s surprising decision came just hours after the Russian Foreign Ministry suggested that Putin expel 35 U.S. diplomats and close two properties used by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as part of a growing diplomatic slugfest over Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The measures were suggested one day after President Obama announced he would expel 35 Russian diplomats from the United States and order the closure of Russian-owned facilities on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and on Long Island in New York believed to have been used for intelligence purposes.
“It is regrettable that the Obama administration, which started out by restoring our ties, is ending its term in an anti-Russia agony. RIP,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote Friday on Twitter.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a statement carried by the Interfax news service, called for 31 employees of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and four diplomats from the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg to be declared “persona non grata” and forced to leave the country.
Further, he suggested the Russian government ban the use of a vacation cottage, or dacha, on the outskirts of Moscow often used for holiday receptions and a warehouse in the Russian capital used by diplomatic staff.
“We hope that these proposals will be considered as quickly as possible,” Lavrov said, portraying the response as symmetrical to the U.S. measures. “Of course, we cannot leave such acts unanswered; reciprocity is a diplomatic law in international relations.”
Lavrov also denied accusations made by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russian state-backed hackers had leaked information about former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in order to sway the election in favor of her opponent, President-elect Donald Trump.
Russian politicians and officials have been sounding off for the last day on how to respond to the Obama administration’s sweeping measures against Russia, the largest mass expulsion of diplomats since the United States expelled 51 Russian diplomats in 2001 for spying. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, promised Friday that Russia’s response would “cause serious discomfort to the American side.”
But other Russian officials have suggested hedging the response, so as not to antagonize the incoming Trump administration, which Moscow has hoped will be more amenable to its interests. They, like Medvedev, have sought to focus blame for the new sanctions on the Obama administration, which is in its final month.
“Countermeasures, which are typically mandatory, should be weighted in this case, considering the known circumstances of the transitional period and the possible response of the U.S. president-elect,” said Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament.
Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.