MOSCOW — On a day when everyone expected him to go low, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the high road, bowing out of a growing diplomatic showdown with the administration of President Obama in a gambit to woo his successor, Donald Trump.
In a rare, and calculated, break from the diplomatic tradition of reciprocal punishment, Putin opted to do nothing after the United States said it would expel 35 Russian diplomats and close a pair of Russian-owned properties in retaliation for Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Putin said he would wait to see how U.S.-Russian relations develop under the new Trump administration before planning “any further steps” on the issue.
Until Putin’s surprise decision Friday, all signs pointed toward the familiar, hard-nosed Kremlin response of years past. In 2012, when Russia was slapped with U.S. sanctions over the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, Putin shot back by signing a ban on all foreign adoptions of Russian children, just days after Christmas, sparking outrage.
But this time, with the Kremlin bidding farewell to Obama and betting that a friendly Trump administration will bring fresh opportunities to escape sanctions and make a grab for greater power status, Putin waxed magnanimous.
“We will not create any problems for U.S. diplomats,” Putin said in a statement late Friday afternoon. “We will not expel anyone. We will not prevent their families and children from using their traditional leisure sites during the New Year’s holidays.”
Instead of sending the U.S. diplomats home, Putin invited their kids over for “the New Year and Christmas children’s parties in the Kremlin.”
Then he wished the Obamas a happy new year and bid season’s greetings to “Donald Trump and the American people.”
One person in particular appreciated that approach.
“Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!” Trump wrote in a tweet Friday afternoon, his latest public expression of admiration for the Russian leader.
Russia has denied and ridiculed accusations by Obama and the U.S. intelligence community that it sponsored hackers to steal and then leak sensitive information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to sway the election in favor of Trump. Putin on Friday accused the United States of engaging in “irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy” and said Russia would retain its “right to retaliate.”
Trump’s unorthodox views on Putin have sent shock waves through his own party, and the sanctions against Russia imposed by Obama on Thursday will present him with a new challenge. Should the Republican choose to remove some or all of the sanctions after his inauguration next month, he would be acting in opposition to public statements made by congressional GOP leaders — and forcing them to decide whether to accept or resist his efforts to remake U.S.-Russian relations.
Still, Putin’s decision not to escalate the situation may make it easier, if just marginally, for him to do that.
Putin’s theatrical turnabout came just hours before Russians set off for their snowbound dachas for a week of holiday festivities. The Russian Foreign Ministry pledged to send a plane to collect the departing Russian diplomats and complained that Washington had been inconsiderate by deporting embassy employees just before the winter break.
In declining a “symmetrical response,” Putin disregarded a public proposal from his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who suggested the expulsion of 35 U.S. diplomats and the closure of two U.S.-owned properties in Moscow — a warehouse and a dacha used for receptions.
That retreat was far humbler than the compound lost to the Russians, a luxurious 45-acre estate at Pioneer Point in Maryland, a site purchased by the Soviet government in 1972 that features tennis courts and bungalows and, during the Soviet period, played host to dinner parties of vodka and caviar.
“Putin’s asymmetric response to Obama’s new sanctions is an investment in the incoming Trump presidency,” Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, wrote online shortly after Putin’s announcement.
Putin’s decision followed a drumbeat of threats from Russian officials about coming countersanctions that focused their ire on the outgoing Obama administration. Until the last moment, it seemed likely that Moscow would follow Friday with its own mass expulsion of U.S. diplomats, similar to when Russia and the United States deported more than 100 diplomats combined in a 2001 spat sparked by the spying case of former FBI agent Robert Hanssen.
Earlier Friday, Putin’s spokesman had said that the Russian countersanctions would bring “serious discomfort” for an American diplomatic corps that has already complained about harassment, including slashed tires and aggressive surveillance.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman called the Obama administration a “group of foreign-policy losers, embittered and shortsighted.”
And Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was openly eulogizing the Obama administration on Twitter. “It is regrettable that the Obama administration, which started out by restoring our ties, is ending its term in an anti-Russia agony. RIP,” he tweeted in English.
The Kremlin will be looking to negotiate with the Trump White House over the role of NATO; the status of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine; the war in Syria; and a host of other thorny issues that have led U.S.-Russian relations to their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War. Perhaps most of all, Putin wants Russia to be treated as a great power that will have a seat at the table when major world decisions are being hammered out.
Seeing those opportunities, some Russian politicians called for a measured response to the U.S. sanctions before Putin’s announcement Friday, arguing that an aggressive move could force a response from Trump and set the relationship off on the wrong foot.
“Countermeasures, which are typically mandatory, should be weighted in this case, considering the known circumstances of the transitional period and the possible response of the U.S. president-elect,” said Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the foreign-affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament.
Russian officials are largely positive about the incoming administration, but there are concerns among some policymakers about the new U.S. leader’s unpredictable nature and lack of experience in politics. Kosachyov had previously said that a Trump presidency could open the door to a significant improvement in relations — or a severe decline.
The nomination of Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, to be secretary of state was seen as confirmation here that Trump will move forward with his stated plans to revitalize the U.S.-Russian relationship. But Tillerson’s nomination hearings will probably serve as a stage to bring Russia to the fore of the national debate, with Senate Democrats likely to pepper him with questions about his time working closely with Putin and use that as a pivot to focus on Trump’s relationship with the Russian leader as well.
Robert Costa in Washington contributed to this report.