Washington’s decision to deport 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. and sanction Russian intelligence officials for the Kremlin’s alleged hacking might intensify confrontation with Moscow before U.S. President-elect Donald Trump comes to power.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson watches as President Barack Obama leaves after speaking at the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center in Arlington, Jan. 13, 2015. Photo: AP

The United States imposed new sanctions on Russia for alleged cyberattacks on the U.S. electoral system and the harassment of American diplomats in Russia. This news came on Dec. 29, on the eve of New Year.

U.S. President Barack Obama announced the deportation of 35 Russian diplomats and sanctioned Russian intelligence officials who, according to Washington, were involved in the hacking scandal during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They were declared "persona non grata”, with two Russian compounds in New York and Maryland closed because they might have been used by Russian personnel for "intelligence-related purposes".

"These actions follow repeated private and public warnings that we have issued to the Russian government, and are a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests in violation of established international norms of behavior," said Obama in a statement from vacation in Hawaii.

“We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized," he added highlighting that the sanctions came in response to "the Russian government’s aggressive harassment of U.S. officials" and "cyber operations aimed at the U.S. election."

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The U.S. Department of State has long complained that Russian security agents and traffic police have harassed U.S. diplomats in Moscow. For example, in early June, an officer from the Federal Security Service participated in an actual fight with an American diplomat near the U.S. embassy. As a result, the American’s shoulder was broken and he had to leave Russia in a hurry for the purpose of receiving medical treatment, according to the official comment of the U.S. Embassy to Moscow.

To quote U.S. State Department representatives, Russia has been notorious for its interference in the work of American diplomats, with their residences covertly broken into and hostile youth activists pursuing them and causing troubles.

"By imposing costs on the Russian diplomats in the United States, by denying them access to the two facilities, we hope the Russian government reevaluates its own actions, which have impeded the ability and safety of our own embassy personnel in Russia," a U.S. official said, as quoted by Business Insider.

Shortly after the victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump in the presidential race, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Stanford professor Michael McFaul announced that the Kremlin had banned him from visiting Russia and denied him a visa. Amidst the victory of the Republican candidate who seeks to normalize the relations with Putin, the ban of McFaul attracted a great deal of attention.

Before the American president ordered to impose new sanctions on the Kremlin, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a report that provided “technical details regarding the tools and infrastructure used by the Russian civilian and military intelligence services to compromise and exploit networks and endpoints associated with the U.S. election, as well as a range of U.S. Government, political, and private entities.”

However, Trump, who has repeatedly exchanged kudos with Russian President Vladimir Putin before and after his victory in the presidential race, might try to cancel these measures after his Jan. 20 inauguration. Yet it remains to be seen if he will succeed. So far, Trump dismisses the U.S. claims that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 electoral process as unfounded. He also puts into question the effectiveness of new sanctions against Moscow.

“I think we ought to get on with our lives. I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly,” Trump said. “The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind, the security we need.”

The Kremlin's response

The decision of Washington to expel 35 Russian diplomats was met with an outcry by the Russian Embassy in United Kingdom. It published a controversial and provocative post on its official Twitter page, describing the Obama administration as “hapless”.

 

Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin's spokesman, told reporters that Putin is "in no rush to make a decision." There is no doubt that Russia's adequate and mirror response will make Washington officials feel very uncomfortable as well, said Peskov, as quoted by the Russian Embassy to the U.S.

Meanwhile, some U.S. media started spreading information about Russia's first visible action came on Thursday: Russian authorities were reported by CNN to have ordered the closure of the Anglo-American School of Moscow, which serves children of U.S., British and Canadian embassy personnel. However, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denied that Russian authorities closed an American school in Moscow and accused Western media of spreading fake news.

“Apparently, the White House has totally lost it and is starting to invent sanctions against their own children,” Zakharova said in a post on Facebook. “It is a lie.”

Shortly after the U.S. President announced the deportation of 35 Russian diplomats, Zakharova described the move of Washington as “Obama's Coming Out” that might affect the image of the U.S. abroad. The Russian Foreign Ministry promised to respond with countermeasures as soon as possible. It said on Thursday the sanctions were counter-productive and would harm the restoration of bilateral relations, with the Kremlin denying the hacking allegations.

Many Americans 'don’t believe that Russians did this'

However, McFaul puts into question Russia’s statements. He believes that identifying those who might be involved in the hacking scandal is “a very important step.” “Tragically, and this is my opinion, there are still a lot of Americans that don’t believe that Russians did this, including, perhaps, even the President-elect,” he told MSNBC TV Channel . “And therefore establishing the facts to make the case to justify economic sanctions — that is going to be a big step forward.”

Indeed, many Americans question the possibility of the Kremlin having hacked the Democratic National Committee's email servers during the election, as indicated by the Politico/Morning Consult poll. Interestingly, 46 percent of respondents say “the U.S. can’t be sure who is primarily responsible for the hacking because tracing cyberattacks is complicated and because intelligence groups were wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”

However, 29 percent argue that there was “near certainty” that Russia is responsible for hacking and “that intelligence agencies had used advanced techniques to determine that the former Cold War adversary is responsible. A quarter said they didn’t know or had no opinion."

 

Source: Politico / Morning Consult

Some Russian experts see the U.S. accusations of Russia having hacked the DNC servers as pure speculations, which are not based on facts. They echo the Kremlin and describe Russia's alleged involvement in the hacking scandal as a conspiracy theory.

However, at the same time, the Kremlin makes no bones about the existence of the so-called cyber troops within Russia’s Defense Ministry. Those enlisted in the troops are supposed to look for vulnerabilities in computer programs, systems and infrastructure of foreign entities.

Indeed, the Ministry posted openings on job forums that first revealed the recruitment effort, according to an investigation by Meduza, a Russian news site based in Riga, Latvia. One post from 2014 advertised a job opening for a computer scientist with knowledge of “patches, vulnerabilities and exploits.” It refers to sabotage used to alter a computer, as quoted by the New York Times.

Nevertheless, some experts remain skeptical. Evgeny Minchenko, one of the independent observers during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the director of the Moscow-based International Institute for Political Expertise, argues that Democrats try to divert the attention of Americans from their dubious pre-election schemes by pointing fingers at the Kremlin. Instead of admitting their failure in the presidential race and learning the necessary lessons, Democrats shift responsibility to Moscow for their defeat, he wrote on his facebook page on Dec. 17.

Also read: "Should Russia be punished for alleged cyber attacks on America?"

At the same time, Ivan Tsvetkov, an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University, argues that the U.S. probe into Russia's hacking scandal and following sanctions will be a gift for the Kremlin's propagandists and politicians.

"The fact that Russia has managed, if allegedly, to cause trouble to the U.S. exactly in the high-tech area is rapidly growing into a source of pride for many Russians," Tsvetkov explains in his column for Russia Direct. "The more the theme is inflated in the mass media, the higher is the support for Putin among the Russians who see that their President not only 'beat America' another time but did it in its own field of high tech'.

"By launching a large-scale investigation, the members of the U.S. Congress may not so much punish the Russian President, but instead boost his publicity and create a great deal of buzz about him," he added.

At the end of his presidency Obama finally decided to express his real attitude toward Putin, as Head of Council on Foreign and Defense Policy Fyodor Lukyanov explained in an interview to Kommersant Daily. According to the pundit, one of the goals of such a move “is to make the improvement of relations with Moscow even more difficult for the next presidential administration.” Lukyanov assumes that Moscow might take the symmetric measures and deport the same number of diplomats from Russia.

UPDATE 1: On Dec. 30, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced 35 U.S. diplomats persona non grata, including 31 personnel of the embassy in Moscow and four of the consulate general in St. Petersburg. However, President Putin refused to deport American diplomats in a New Year statement, even though Russia could respond to the U.S. sanctions symmetrically. He said that Russia “won’t create problems for American diplomats” working in Moscow and St. Petersburg, “won’t expel” them and “won't forbid their families and children from celebrating the New Year” in the places where they are used to spending their time during the winter holidays. Moreover, he invited the children of American diplomats to celebrate the New Year in the Kremlin.

"Putin's asymmetric response to Obama's new sanctions is an investment in the incoming Trump presidency," said Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin."Even as Obama seeks to constrain Trump in his Russia policy, Putin counters that step with [a] show of magnanimity."

UPDATE 2: The story was also updated with the comments of Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova who denied the Kremlin closed an American school in Moscow and accused Western media of spreading fake news.