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Putin decides against expelling US diplomats

Vladimir Putin said Russia will not expel any US diplomats in response to sanctions imposed by Washington, in an extraordinary move aimed at limiting the fallout from the Kremlin’s clash with the Obama administration over the hacking of this year’s US presidential election.

The Russian president made his announcement on Friday despite foreign ministry proposals for the expulsion of 35 US diplomats.

Sergei Lavrov, foreign minister, said the ministry had proposed the expulsion of 31 staff from the US embassy in Moscow and four from the consulate in St Petersburg. Mr Lavrov said Moscow should also bar US diplomats from a warehouse and a dacha used by the embassy.

The moves respond to sweeping new US sanctions against Russia in retaliation for cyber attacks that the CIA says were mounted by Russia and which targeted the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of Hillary Clinton, the failed presidential contender.

The US measures both targeted Russia’s two main intelligence services, expelled 35 alleged Russian intelligence operatives stationed in the Russian embassy in Washington and the consulate in San Francisco. They will also shut down two compounds in Maryland and Long Island that are used by Russian diplomats.

The response proposed by the Russian foreign ministry had sought to take strictly reciprocal measures against US diplomats, aiming to prevent a new downward spiral that could hamper a turnround in the bilateral relationship after Donald Trump is inaugurated as US president next month.

Mr Trump has downplayed the intelligence findings blaming the cyber attacks on Russia, calling on the US “to move on to bigger and better things” but also announcing a meeting next week with top intelligence officials “in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”

We cannot leave these tricks unanswered. Reciprocity is the rule of diplomacy and international relations

However, the president-elect is likely to face resistance from many high-ranking members of Congress who remain hawkish on Moscow and have called for tougher sanctions.

Some Russian officials initially reacted with fury to Washington’s move.

“The whole world, from the stalls to the gallery, is watching the crushing blow to the prestige of America and its leadership, dealt by Barack Obama and his incompetent foreign policy team, revealing the main secret: exceptionalism was just the disguise for helplessness,” wrote Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry’s spokesman, in an angry Facebook post late on Thursday night.

But the ministry’s official reaction on Friday — and Mr Putin’s eventual response — were more measured.

“The behaviour of the American administration is completely transparent. In both cases, the dachas were used for children to spend their winter holidays. Traditionally, holiday camps are held there,” said Mr Lavrov, referring to the Russian compounds in Long Island and Maryland. “As far as I understand from statements of the American administration, these dachas have been declared ‘spy nests’.”

Mr Lavrov added that “we, of course, cannot leave these tricks unanswered. Reciprocity is the rule of diplomacy and international relations.”

The foreign ministry dismissed a CNN report that the Russian government had decreed the closure of the Anglo-American School, a school jointly backed by the US, Canadian and British embassies, as a “lie”.

In a Facebook post of his own, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, issued a personal note of regret about the confrontation in the dying days of a US administration that began by attempting a “reset” with the Kremlin — at a time when he held the Russian presidency and cultivated a close relationship with Mr Obama.

“It is regrettable that the Obama administration, which started out by restoring our ties, is ending its term in an anti-Russia agony,” Mr Medvedev wrote. “RIP.”

Via FT