The United States has expelled 35 Russian diplomats and closed two Russian compounds in New York and Maryland in response to a campaign of harassment against American diplomats in Moscow in a move welcomed by top Republicans.
The move against the diplomats from the Russian embassy in Washington and consulate in San Francisco is part of a series of actions announced on Thursday to punish Russia for a campaign of intimidation of American diplomats in Moscow and interference in the US election.
The Obama administration was also announcing on Thursday a series of retaliatory measures against Russia for hacking into US political institutions and individuals and leaking information to help President-elect Donald Trump and other Republican candidates, two US officials said.President Barack Obama had all but accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of personally ordering an audacious cyber hack that many Democrats believe damaged Hillary Clinton's chances in November's closely fought election with the Republican foe.
"I have ordered a number of actions in response to the Russian government's aggressive harassment of US officials and cyber operations aimed at the US election," Obama said.
"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 US interests in violation of established international norms of behavior."A spokesperson for the Kremlin said Russia rejected the expulsion of its diplomatic staff, the Washington Post reports.
A tweet from the Russian embassy in the UK called the move an act of "Cold War deja vu", adding many Americans will be glad to see the back of the "hapless" Obama administration, implying it was a lame duck. Trump said it was time to move on to "bigger and better things" in a statement released after the White House announcement.
"It's time for our country to move on to bigger and better things," Trump said in a statement.
"Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation."
The president-elect has shirked off the need for daily intelligence briefings and it is not clear if he will be able to immediately overturn the measures announced on Thursday after he takes office on January 20.
House of Representative Speaker Paul Ryan, a fellow republican, said Russia "has consistently sought to undermine" US interests.
"While today’s action by the administration is overdue, it is an appropriate way to end eight years of failed policy with Russia," Ryan said in a statement.
"And it serves as a prime example of this administration's ineffective foreign policy that has left America weaker in the eyes of the world."Senior Republic senators also weigh in, with Lindsey Graham calling for tougher sanctions on Moscow and John McCain labelling Putin a “thug and a murderer”.
McCain has also called on Trump's pick for Secretary of State, ExxonMonil CEO Rex Tillerson, to explain his close relationship wit the Russian leader.
“I and several of my colleagues have concerns about Mr Tillerson, and some of his past activities, specifically his relationship with Vladimir Putin,” McCain said.
“I have concerns but at the same time I’m certain we will give Mr Tillerson an opportunity to make his case about why he is qualified to be secretary of state.”
The Russian diplomats would have 72 hours to leave the United States, the official said. Access to the two compounds, which are used by Russian officials for intelligence gathering, will be denied to all Russian officials as of noon on Friday, the senior official added.
"These actions were taken to respond to Russian harassment of American diplomats and actions by the diplomats that we have assessed to be not consistent with diplomatic practice," the official said.
The US intelligence community has concluded that a hack-and-release of Democratic Party and Clinton staff emails was designed to put Trump -- a political neophyte who has praised Putin -- into the Oval Office.The measures are certain to send already high tensions with Moscow soaring just three weeks before Trump succeeds Obama.
Among the measures announced were sanctions against Russia's FSB and GRU intelligence agencies, the designation of 35 Russian operatives as "persona non grata" and the closure of two Russian compounds in New York and Maryland that the United States says are used "for intelligence-related purposes."
"All Americans should be alarmed by Russia's actions," Obama said. "Moreover, our diplomats have experienced an unacceptable level of harassment in Moscow by Russian security services and police over the last year.
"Such activities have consequences."
The State Department has long complained that Russian security agents and traffic police have harassed US diplomats in Moscow, and US Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.
The US official declined to name the Russian diplomats who would be affected, although it is understood that Russia's ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, will not be one of those expelled.
Below is a list of the key points outlined by the US government in a raft of documents from various agencies.
Obama added that the US may take "a variety" of additional actions, "some of which will not be publicized."
Economic sanctions will hit Russia's two main intelligence agencies -- the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and the Federal Security Service (FSB) -- freezing their assets and blocking them from the US financial system.
Similar sanctions will be slapped on three other entities:
-- the Special Technology Center in St. Petersburg, said to have assisted the GRU in intelligence operations;
-- Zorsecurity, also known as Esage Lab, which provides technical research;
-- the Professional Association of Designers of Data Processing Systems, a group which provides training to the GRU.
- Sanctioned individuals -
-- Current GRU chief Igor Valentinovich Korobov
-- Deputy GRU chief Sergey Aleksandrovich Gizunov
-- First deputy GRU chiefs Igor Olegovich Kostyukov and Vladimir Stepanovich Alexseyev.
A separate US Treasury order sanctions two Russian individuals for hacking into US banks, corporations, universities and other organizations:
-- Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev, accused of stealing over $100 million from computer hacking
-- Aleksey Alekseyevich Belan, said to have led "malicious cyber-enabled misappropriation of personal identifiers for private financial gain" by compromising three US-based e-commerce companies.
Bogachev and Belan are both on the FBI's "most wanted" list, which means they could face criminal charges. A $3 million reward is offered for information on Bogachev and $100,000 for Belan.
The State Department declared 35 officials from the Russian Embassy in Washington and the Russian Consulate in San Francisco "persona non grata," requiring them to leave US soil within 72 hours.
"They were acting in a manner inconsistent with their diplomatic status," the White House said -- diplomatic speak for the fact that they were "intelligence operatives," as Obama called them.
Compounds shut down
Russian diplomats will also be denied access to two Moscow-owned compounds, one in Maryland and one in New York, according to the State Department.
Obama said the compounds were being used for "intelligence-related purposes."