Trump Praises Putin for Rejecting In-Kind Response to Obama

  • President-elect calls Russian leader ‘very smart’ in tweet
  • Obama acted over alleged Russian interference in 2016 vote

Putin Decides Against Expelling U.S. Diplomats

President-elect Donald Trump praised Vladimir Putin as “very smart” after the Russian leader ruled out a tit-for-tat retaliation for the Obama administration’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats over cyberattacks aimed at interfering with the U.S. election.

“Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!” Trump wrote on Twitter Friday, hours after Putin said Russia won’t order U.S. diplomats out of the country in reaction to President Barack Obama’s action the day before.

Trump’s message -- which was spread over his social media accounts, promoted by his staff and retweeted by the Russian embassy in Washington -- opens the potential for a conflict with members of his own party in the U.S. Congress.

While Trump has repeatedly complimented Putin and expressed skepticism that Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic Party e-mails, top Republicans have been critical of the Russian president and generally backed Obama’s decision to impose sanctions and oust what he called intelligence operatives working under diplomatic cover.

Putin said in a statement Friday that Russia “won’t send anyone away” after his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was shown on state television recommending the ouster of U.S. personnel. “We won’t descend to the level of irresponsible, kitchen diplomacy,” the Russian president said, adding that further steps to repair relations would depend on Trump’s policies.

Vladimir Putin

Photographer: Michael Klimentyev/AFP via Getty Images

Trump has said he wants to cooperate with Putin in fighting terrorism and may review sanctions that Obama imposed over Russia’s involvement in a conflict in Ukraine.

The Russian government, which has denied it was behind the hacking, accused the outgoing U.S. administration of spending its last weeks in power trying to sabotage Trump’s promised outreach to the Kremlin.

Simon Saradzhyan, director of the Russia Matters Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, said Trump’s tweet wasn’t surprising given his past remarks and his stated goal of resetting the U.S. relationship with Russia.

“He has grounds to believe this is a smart move,” Saradzhyan said. “Because if Vladimir Putin had reciprocated, which is usually the norm, that would inevitably constrain Trump’s ability to maneuver because, yes, you can blame everything on the past administration.”

“Putin is looking beyond Obama and he wants to be able to start with Trump from scratch, from a clean state, so not expelling diplomats is a smart move on his part,” he said.

Potential Bind

Still, Obama’s actions put Trump in a political bind less than a month before his inauguration. Reversing course would effectively reject the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies and put him at odds with the Republican leaders in Congress who called the sanctions a necessary step.

The Republican chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, called Obama’s moves “a step in the right direction,” saying that “post-Cold War Russia has taken a dark turn under Vladimir Putin.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Thursday that “the Russians are not our friends.”

Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, scheduled a hearing on foreign cyber threats to the U.S. for next week. He and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who serves on the panel, said they would lead an effort in Congress to impose even tougher penalties on Russia than those announced by Obama.

Moving On

In a brief statement Thursday, Trump said that while “it’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” he’ll meet with intelligence officials next week to get their assessment of the Russian hacking.

Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway sought to cast doubt on Obama’s motives.
 
The sanctions “seem largely symbolic,” she said Friday on CNN. She noted that many experts have said Obama’s move may put Trump in a corner in attempting to reset the U.S. relationship with Russia. “That would be very unfortunate if politics were the motivating factor here. We can’t help but think that’s often true,” Conway said.

There are no immediate plans for Trump or his representatives to contact Putin’s government before inauguration day, spokesman Sean Spicer added Friday on a conference call with reporters. “The priority right now is for the president-elect to get an update from the intelligence community,” he said.

Obama’s homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco, said on MSNBC Thursday that the administration had notified Trump’s team about the White House response before it was announced but there had been no consultation with the president-elect.

Trump’s Skepticism

Trump has repeatedly scoffed at the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the pilfering and steady release of e-mails from Democratic National Committee and party officials in order to damage the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Trump has said the hacking could have been the work of “somebody sitting in a bed someplace” and told reporters Wednesday that “we ought to get on with our lives” instead of rehashing the cyberattack.

Russia hopes that it can ride out the storm and put ties with the U.S. on a better track once Trump takes office, said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a Kremlin foreign-policy advisory group.

“Russia views these not as U.S. sanctions, but Obama sanctions, so he will go and we can both decide that we don’t bear any responsibility for the actions of a jackass,” Lukyanov said.

Analysts with the Eurasia Group predicted that the U.S. moves won’t deter Russia from future cyber actions or cause it to change its policies on Syria or Ukraine.

“The new sanctions will mildly impede the likely détente between the incoming administration of Donald Trump and Russia, but we still expect Trump to ease Ukraine-related sanctions in 2017,” the New York-based research group said in a note Friday.

Technical Evidence

White House officials said Obama’s successor could reverse the executive actions but suggested Trump may not want to be in the position of letting Russian spies return and giving Moscow a green light to meddle in European and U.S. politics. The U.S. has indications that Russia will try to interfere with elections on all levels, according to one of the officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

Read more about U.S. intelligence findings on the hacking attacks.

Among those targeted in the sanctions announced by the Treasury Department were the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB. Cybersecurity experts in the U.S. have linked the GRU to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and party officials through a group they have nicknamed APT 28 or Fancy Bear. The U.S. also is sanctioning several cyber companies associated with them.

In addition, two Russians accused of commercial theft and fraud using computer networks were hit with sanctions. The two, Aleksey Belan and Evgeniy Bogachev, also are on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list.

Read more about who suspects what in hacking -- a QuickTake Q&A

In addition to the hacking, Obama cited an “unacceptable level of harassment” of U.S. diplomats in Moscow by Russian security services and police over the past year.

The sanctions and expulsions may be matched by covert countermeasures intended to warn Russia that the U.S. is able to breach its most sensitive computer systems, while preserving public deniability.

Burlington Electric Department, one of Vermont’s electrical utilities, said Friday it detected a malware in a single laptop not connected to its grid systems after scanning all computers. "We took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alerted federal officials of this finding," utility spokesman Mike Kanarick said in a statement on its website. The Washington Post reported earlier that a utility in Vermont found a malware code associated with “Grizzly Steppe,” a Russian-hacking operation.

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