MOSCOW — The Kremlin on Friday issued a stark warning to the United States, saying it would respond in kind to the U.S. expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and other sanctions following the Russian hacking of U.S. political parties before the 2016 presidential elections.
“I cannot say now what the response will be, although, as we know, there is no alternative here to the principle of reciprocity,” said Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov in a statement late Thursday reported by the Interfax news service.
He said that Russian President Vladimir Putin would decide the exact response.
Peskov’s remarks were the culmination of a sharply worded reaction by Russia’s establishment to the sanctions, which come at a time when Moscow is looking forward to an improvement in its ties with the United States at the start of the Trump administration in three weeks.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, whose comments about the Obama administration have grown increasingly hostile as the relationship has soured, dismissed the White House as “a group of foreign policy losers, angry and ignorant.”
Zakharova’s colleague in the foreign ministry, Konstantin Dolgov, who holds the title of commissioner on democracy and human rights, called the U.S. sanctions “counterproductive” and cast them as having “the goal of damaging relations and complicating their restoration in the future.”
Whatever retaliation Moscow is considering will have to take into account the possibility that the Trump administration will want to restore the relationship that has foundered on differences over Syria, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin’s proxy war in Ukraine and the alleged hacking on behalf of now-President-elect Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential campaign.
Peskov told reporters on Thursday that the steps showed President Obama’s “unpredictable and aggressive foreign policy.” “Such steps of the U.S. 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.”
Konstantin Kosachyov, a senior member of the upper house of the Russian parliament, suggested that Moscow will have to weigh its response given the possible reaction of the newly elected president.
The sanctions, he said in comments carried by Interfax, represented not the will of the United States as a whole but “the agony of political corpses of the outgoing administration.”
That said, the history of diplomatic expulsions suggest that, at the least, Russia will throw out a similar number of U.S. Embassy personnel. Zakharova and others have long warned of an “asymmetrical” response to sanctions over the hacking allegations, so other expulsions are possible.
Putin repeatedly denied Russian involvement in the U.S. election despite the accusations from the White House, and the Kremlin has questioned the evidence for the claims. In his nationally broadcast marathon news conference last week, Putin borrowed some of Trump’s dismissive rhetoric, remarking about the hacking that, “Maybe it was someone lying on the couch who did it.”
The Democratic Party, Putin said, is “losing on all fronts and looking elsewhere for things to blame. In my view, this, how shall I say it, degrades their own dignity. You have to know how to lose with dignity.”
U.S. analysts say Putin’s animus against Hillary Clinton are a likely explanation for the Kremlin’s desire to harm her campaign for the presidency, but contempt for Obama’s White House has also grown in recent months, after the administration shut down all contacts with the Kremlin.
Putin in October issued a striking manifesto of changes he expected the United States to make, including reimbursement for Ukraine sanctions, as a precondition for restoring relations.
More recently, Russia has pursued peace negotiations in Syria, culminating in a cease-fire deal Putin announced Thursday that pointedly excluded the Obama administration.
But the sanctions did not dampen expectations in Moscow that better times were soon to come.
“None of this will change the results of the election of the American president, and in January, the rightful owner of the White House will be Donald Trump,” said Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the international affairs committee of the Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament. “I expect that with his arrival, the dialogue between Russia and the United States will be conducted in a more healthy political atmosphere.”