Russia has retaliated against new US sanctions by ordering 755 American diplomats to leave – a move that will create a fresh crisis in the relationship between the two countries.
Days after the both houses of the US Congress voted almost unanimously to impose fresh sanctions on Moscow, Vladimir Putin said he was responding to “unlawful” behaviour by Washington.
“The American side has made a move which, it is important to note, hasn’t been provoked by anything, to worsen Russian-US relations. [It includes] unlawful restrictions, attempts to influence other states of the world, including our allies, who are interested in developing and keeping relations with Russia,” Mr Putin told the Rossiya 1 TV channel.
“We’ve been waiting for quite a long time that maybe something would change for the better, we had hopes that the situation would change. But it looks like, it’s not going to change in the near future… I decided that it is time for us to show that we will not leave anything unanswered.”
The US sanctions bill also included measures against Iran and North Korea and was passed over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its alleged interference in the 2016 US election.
The move by politicians on Capitol Hill has pushed Donald Trump into a corner. The White House had made clear it was against the measure, but the President has said he will sign the bill, rather than use his veto power and risk fresh accusations that he is soft on Moscow.
Russia had warned on Friday that it intended to expel the diplomats and to seize two properties used by US diplomats. However, Mr Putin’s comments on Sunday were the first to make clear the number of US envoys he intends to force to leave.
An official at the US Embassy in Moscow said there were about 1,100 diplomatic and support staff in Russia, including US citizens and Russians, Reuters reported last week.
Earlier on Sunday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the vote for the sanctions was the “last drop” and said Moscow would retaliate “in kind.”
“We have a very rich toolbox at our disposal. It would be ridiculous on my part to start speculating on what may or may not happen,” Mr Rybakov told ABC. “I can assure you that different options are on the table and consideration is being given to all sorts of things.”
The move by Russia takes place against ongoing controversy in the US about Mr Trump’s relationship with Moscow and possible collusion between his campaign and Russia over its alleged effort to interfere in the presidential election. Earlier this month, it was revealed Mr Trump’s eldest son, his campaign manager and his son-in-law, had met with a Russian lawyer linked to the Kremlin after they were told she had compromising material about Mr Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton.
Special prosecutor Robert Mueller is currently heading a federal probe into possible collusion and there are several investigations underway on Capitol Hill. Mr Trump has repeatedly denied any such collusion and said he and his officials are the victims of a political “witch hunt”.
Last December, Barack Obama ordered 35 Russian diplomats to leave the US and the seizing of two compounds, one in New York and the other in Maryland, that had been used by the diplomats. He said the actions were being carried out in response to Moscow’s alleged attempt to interfere in the election.
Many observers had expected that Mr Putin would respond in kind. However, apparently assuming that relations between the two countries might improve once Mr Trump office, he held off from doing so.
Mr Trump had spoken enthusiastically of his with to have better relations between the two countries and to seek Russia’s help in countering Isis in Syria. Earlier this month at the G20 in Hamburg, the two men met for several hours and hatched a ceasefire deal for a small part of Syria.
Critics of Mr Trump say he has repeatedly refused to criticise Mr Putin and that he has been in denial about Moscow’s attempt to influence the election.