Putin won't expel U.S. diplomats; Trump offers praise

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin castigated the United States on Friday for trying to punish Russia but said his country will not immediately retaliate and instead will wait for a new U.S. approach by Donald Trump. The president-elect praised Putin's move and called him "very smart."

Putin said no U.S. diplomats will be ousted in retaliation for President Barack Obama's decision to impose sanctions and expel Russian diplomats over allegations of Russian meddling in the American presidential election. The Russian leader said he reserves the right to hit back in the future, but suggested it will be unnecessary because he expects to work with Trump's administration to improve U.S.-Russia ties.

Still, Putin called Obama's move a "provocation aimed at further undermining Russian-American relations" less than a month before Trump takes office. In addition to sanctions targeting Russian spy agencies, the U.S. kicked 35 Russian diplomats out of the U.S. and said they were spies.

Trump's reaction, as it often does, came via Twitter. "Great move on delay (by V. Putin)," Trump tweeted. "I always knew he was very smart!"

He pinned the tweet to the top of his Twitter page so that it would remain there prominently and indefinitely even after other tweets are sent.

The move by the incoming president to side with a foreign adversary over the sitting president was a dramatic departure from typical diplomatic practice, further fueling the burgeoning controversy over what the Obama administration says was a cyberattack against America's political system.

Putin's decision to hold off on retaliation came as a surprise; tit-for-tat expulsions are common practice, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had suggested hours before that Russia would oust 31 American diplomats.

"The Russian diplomats returning home will spend the New Year holidays with their relatives and dear ones," Putin said in a statement published on the Kremlin website. "We will not create problems for U.S. diplomats. We will not expel anybody."

He added: "Moreover, I am inviting all children of U.S. diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year and Christmas parties at the Kremlin."

New Year's Eve has been the main holiday in Russia since Soviet times. Russians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.

Putin appeared to aim at playing a long game and made a barbed reminder that Obama is a lame duck.

Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, called the response "a different kind of tit-for-tat" in a tweet: "Even as Obama seeks to constrain Trump in his Russia policy, Putin counters that step with a show of magnanimity."

The diplomatic confrontation between Washington and Moscow, which had been festering even before Trump won the Nov. 8 presidential election, puts pressure on the billionaire businessman not to let Russia off the hook after he takes office on Jan. 20.

Russia's government had threatened retaliation, and it continues to deny U.S. accusations that it hacked and stole emails to try to help Trump win.

Trump said the U.S. should move on, but in a sign he was no longer totally brushing off the allegations, he said he plans to meet with U.S. intelligence leaders next week to learn more.

Obama's sanctions targeted the GRU and FSB, the Russian intelligence agencies the U.S. said were involved in the hacking attacks. In an elaborately coordinated response by at least five federal agencies, the Obama administration also sought to expose Russia's cyber tactics with a detailed technical report and hinted it might still launch a covert counterattack.

"All Americans should be alarmed by Russia's actions," said Obama, who was vacationing in Hawaii.

Yet the sanctions could easily be pulled back by Trump, who has insisted that Obama and Democrats are merely attempting to delegitimize his election.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev charged earlier on Friday that Washington has become immersed in "anti-Russian death throes."

Medvedev, who focused on improving U.S.-Russia ties when he was president from 2008-2012, called the latest diplomatic breach "sad" in a Twitter post.

U.S. relations with Russia have suffered during Obama's presidency as he and Putin tussled over Ukraine, Edward Snowden and Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, took to Facebook to call the Obama administration "a group of foreign policy losers, angry and ignorant."

As part of the punishment leveled against Moscow, the U.S. kicked out 35 Russian diplomats in response to Russia's harassment of U.S. diplomats. Russian recreational compounds in New York and Maryland that U.S. officials said were being used for intelligence were also shut down.

It was the strongest action the Obama administration has taken in response to an alleged cyberattack, and it was more comprehensive than last year's sanctions on North Korea after the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment. The new penalties add to existing U.S. sanctions over Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Senior Obama administration officials said that even with the penalties, the U.S. had reason to believe Russia would hack other nations' elections and might well try to hack American elections in 2018 or 2020. The officials briefed reporters on a conference call on condition of anonymity.

Though the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a joint report on "Russian malicious cyber activity" the government still has not released a broader report Obama has promised detailing Russia's efforts to interfere with U.S. elections.

The report has been eagerly anticipated by those hoping to make it politically untenable for Trump to continue questioning whether Russia was really involved.

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Lederman reported from Honolulu. Associated Press writers Tami Abdollah in Washington, Jill Colvin in Palm Beach, Florida, and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.

Statement by the President on Actions in Response to Russian Malicious Cyber Activity and Harassment

Today, I have ordered a number of actions in response to the Russian government's aggressive harassment of U.S. officials and cyber operations aimed at the U.S. election. These actions follow repeated private and public warnings that we have issued to the Russian government, and are a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests in violation of established international norms of behavior.

All Americans should be alarmed by Russia's actions. In October, my Administration publicized our assessment that Russia took actions intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.  These data theft and disclosure activities could only have been directed by the highest levels of the Russian government. Moreover, our diplomats have experienced an unacceptable level of harassment in Moscow by Russian security services and police over the last year.  Such activities have consequences.  Today, I have ordered a number of actions in response.

I have issued an executive order that provides additional authority for responding to certain cyber activity that seeks to interfere with or undermine our election processes and institutions, or those of our allies or partners.  Using this new authority, I have sanctioned nine entities and individuals:  the GRU and the FSB, two Russian intelligence services; four individual officers of the GRU; and three companies that provided material support to the GRU's cyber operations.  In addition, the Secretary of the Treasury is designating two Russian individuals for using cyber-enabled means to cause misappropriation of funds and personal identifying information.  The State Department is also shutting down two Russian compounds, in Maryland and New York, used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes, and is declaring "persona non grata" 35 Russian intelligence operatives.  Finally, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are releasing declassified technical information on Russian civilian and military intelligence service cyber activity, to help network defenders in the United States and abroad identify, detect, and disrupt Russia's global campaign of malicious cyber activities.

These actions are not the sum total of our response to Russia's aggressive activities. We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized. In addition to holding Russia accountable for what it has done, the United States and friends and allies around the world must work together to oppose Russia's efforts to undermine established international norms of behavior, and interfere with democratic governance. To that end, my Administration will be providing a report to Congress in the coming days about Russia's efforts to interfere in our election, as well as malicious cyber activity related to our election cycle in previous elections. 

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