Moscow immediately threatened to retaliate to America’s announcement that it was expelling 35 Russian diplomats - saying the US’s actions were the “death throes of political corpses”.
In a development that plunged relations between Russia and the US to a level not seen since the Cold War, President Barack Obama on Thursday gave the diplomats 72 hours to leave and said he was sanctioning Russian intelligence officials believed to be involved in hacking the Democratic Party during the election. US intelligence has said it believes the hacking was designed to benefit Donald Trump.
“All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions,” Mr Obama said, claiming the extent of data theft and cyber attacks uncovered “could only have been directed by the highest levels of the Russian government”.
In addition to expelling the 35 intelligence operatives, the President announced Russia’s FSB and GRU intelligence agencies, four GRU officers and three companies supporting its cyber operations.
Two other Russians have been blacklisted by the Treasury for “using cyber-enabled means to cause misappropriation of funds and personal identifying information” and the State Department is shutting down two Russian compounds in Maryland and New York.
Mr Obama said the actions were a response to “the Russian government’s aggressive harassment of US officials and cyber operations aimed at the US election” and followed repeated public and private warnings to the Kremlin.
“These actions are not the sum total of our response to Russia’s aggressive activities,” he added.
“We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicised.”
Within minutes of the announcement, Russia indicated that it was likely to reciprocate. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said Moscow regretted the sanctions and was considering retaliatory steps.
Dmitry Peskov told reporters America's move signalled Mr Obama's “unpredictable and aggressive foreign policy”.
“Such steps of the US administration that has three weeks left to work are aimed at two things: to further harm Russian-American ties, which are at a low point as it is, as well as, obviously, deal a blow on the foreign policy plans of the incoming administration of the President-elect,” he said.
Konstantin Kosachyov, a chairman of the international affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, condemned the move and suggested there would be a fast response. He said the US’s actions were the “death throes of political corpses”.
He also said that Russia was waiting to see what Mr Trump had to say about the steps of the Obama administration and needed to “consider the circumstances of the transition period and a possible reaction of the US President-elect”.
Konstantin Dolgov, Russian Foreign Ministry Commissioner for Human rights, told Interfax that Washington’s actions were “counterproductive and are intended to cause harm in the future, including the process of restoring bilateral relations”.
Meanwhile, the Russian Embassy in London tweeted a picture of duckling, with the caption “LAME”, writing: “President Obama expels 35 Russian diplomats in Cold War deja vu. As everybody, incl the US people, will be glad to see the last of this hapless administration”.
Mr Obama on imposed the sanctions on Russian officials and intelligence services in retaliation for Russia's hacking of American political sites and email accounts ahead of the November election. US intelligence believes that Moscow was behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails that were then passed to Wikileaks.
At least some intelligence officials believe the hacks were carried out to try and benefit the electoral fortunes of Mr Trump, who has frequently praised the leadership of Mr Putin and vowed to reset the strategic and political relationship between the two countries.
Mr Putin’s spokesman, Mr Peskov, insisted that Russia was not involved in the hacking. He also said that Mr Putin had yet to study what the new sanctions involve and work out what retaliatory steps could be taken.
“We will certainly response adequately…and it will be determined in line with decisions adopted by the Russian President,” he told reporters, calling the sanctions ”unpredictable and aggressive”.
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