FILE PHOTOS: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin (REUTERS)
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on Friday praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for refraining from retaliation in a dispute over spying and cyber attacks, in another sign that the Republican plans to patch up badly frayed relations with Moscow.
Putin earlier on Friday said he would not hit back for the U.S. expulsion of 35 suspected Russian spies by President Barack Obama, at least until Trump takes office on Jan. 20.
“Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!” Trump wrote on Twitter from Florida, where he is on vacation.
Obama on Thursday ordered the expulsion of the Russians and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over their involvement in hacking political groups in the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election.
“We will not expel anyone,” Putin said in a statement, adding that Russia reserved the right to retaliate.
“Further steps towards the restoration of Russian-American relations will be built on the basis of the policy which the administration of President D. Trump will carry out,” he said.
In a separate development, a code associated with the Russian hacking operation dubbed Grizzly Steppe by the Obama administration has been detected within the system of a Vermont electric utility, the Washington Post reported on Friday, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
The Russians did not actively use the code to disrupt operations of the utility, the officials told the Post, but penetration of the nation’s electrical grid is significant because it represents a potentially serious vulnerability.
Trump has repeatedly praised Putin and nominated people seen as friendly toward Moscow to senior administration posts, but it is unclear whether he would seek to roll back Obama’s actions, which mark a post-Cold War low in U.S.-Russian ties.
Trump has brushed aside allegations from the CIA and other intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the cyber attacks.” It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” Trump said on Thursday, though he said he would meet with intelligence officials next week.
U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia was behind hacks into Democratic Party organizations and operatives before the presidential election. Moscow denies this. U.S. intelligence officials say the Russian cyber attacks aimed to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Russian officials have portrayed the sanctions as a last act of a lame-duck president and suggested Trump could reverse them when he takes over from Obama, a Democrat.
A senior U.S. official on Thursday said that Trump could reverse Obama’s executive order, but doing so would be inadvisable.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the Obama administration “a group of embittered and dimwitted foreign policy losers.”
Should Trump seek to heal the rift with Russia, he might encounter opposition in Congress, including from fellow Republicans.
Republican John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Friday that Russia must face a penalty for the cyber attacks.
“When you attack a country, it’s an act of war,” McCain said in an interview with the Ukrainian TV channel “1+1” while on a visit to Kiev.
“And so we have to make sure that there is a price to pay, so that we can perhaps persuade the Russians to stop these kind of attacks on our very fundamentals of democracy,” added McCain, who has scheduled a hearing for Thursday on foreign cyber threats.
Other senior Republicans, as well as Democrats, have urged a tough response to Moscow.
A total of 96 Russians are expected to leave the United States including expelled diplomats and their families.
Trump will find it very difficult to reverse the expulsions and lift the sanctions given that they were based on a unanimous conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies, said Eugene Rumer, who was the top U.S. intelligence analyst for Russia from 2010 until 2014.
But that might not prevent Trump from improving ties to Russia, said Rumer, now director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a policy institute. “If Mr. Trump wants to start the relationship anew, I don’t think he needs to walk these sanctions back. He can just say this was Obama’s decision,” said Rumer.
As part of the sanctions, Obama told Russia to close two compounds in the United States that the administration said were used by Russian personnel for “intelligence-related purposes.”
Convoys of trucks, buses and black sedans with diplomatic license plates left the countryside vacation retreats outside Washington and New York City without fanfare on Friday.
A former Russian Foreign Ministry employee told Reuters that the facility in Maryland was a dacha used by diplomatic staff and their children. The 45-acre complex includes a Georgian-style brick mansion, swimming pool, tennis courts and cottages for embassy staff.
Neighbors said the Russians were a lively bunch, seen water-skiing in summer and known for throwing a large, annual Labor Day party.
The Russian consulate in San Francisco said on its Facebook page, “We hate to have to say goodbye to close to a dozen of our colleagues, our friends.” Among those expelled was the consulate chef.
Obama had promised consequences after U.S. intelligence officials blamed Russia for hacks intended to influence the 2016 election. Officials accused Putin of personally directing the efforts and primarily targeting Democrats.
Washington also put sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies, the GRU and the FSB, four GRU officers and three companies that Obama said “provided material support to the GRU’s cyber operations.”
(Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson, Jonathan Landay and Yara Bayoumy in Washington, Yeganeh Torbati and Joel Schectman in Centreville, Md., David Ingram at the United Nations, Katya Golubkova and Svetlana Reiter in Moscow and Sergei Karazy and Matthias Williams in Kiev; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Howard Goller and Leslie Adler)
Pompeo visits North Korea, forms ‘good relationship with Kim’, says Trump
FILE PHOTO: A combination photo shows CIA Director Mike Pompeo (L) in Washington, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) in Pyongyang, North Korea and U.S. President Donald Trump (R), in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., respectively from Reuters files. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (L) & KCNA handout via Reuters & Kevin Lamarque (R)
WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) – CIA director Mike Pompeo, U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to become the top U.S. diplomat, visited North Korea last week and met leader Kim Jong Un with whom he formed a “good relationship”, Trump said on Wednesday.
Pompeo became the most senior U.S. official known to have met Kim when he visited Pyongyang to discuss a planned summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.
“Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong Un in North Korea last week. Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed. Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!” Trump said on Twitter.
Pompeo’s visit and the Tweet provide the strongest sign yet about Trump’s willingness to become the first serving U.S. president ever to meet a North Korean leader, amid a protracted standoff over the North’s nuclear and missile programs it pursues in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
U.S. officials said earlier Pompeo visited over the Easter weekend, March 31 to April 2. Representatives for the White House and the State Department did not immediately respond to a query on the exact date of the meeting with Kim.
At the same time, old rivals North Korea and South Korea are preparing for their own summit, between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, on April 27, with a bid to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War a major factor in talks.
“As one of the plans, we are looking at a possibility of shifting the Korean peninsula’s armistice to a peace regime,” a top South Korean presidential official told reporters in Seoul earlier on Wednesday when asked about the North-South summit.
“But that’s not a matter than can be resolved between the two Koreas alone. It requires close consultations with other concerned nations, as well as North Korea,” the official said.
South Korea and a U.S.-led U.N. force are technically still at war with North Korea after the Korean War ended with a truce, not a peace treaty. The U.S.-led United Nations Command, Chinese forces and North Korea signed the 1953 armistice, to which South Korea is not a party.
“I do not know if any joint statement to be reached at the inter-Korean summit would include wording about ending the war, but we certainly hope to be able to include an agreement to end hostile acts between the South and North,” the official said.
Trump said on Tuesday he backed efforts between North and South Korea aimed at ending the state of war.
Such discussions between the two Koreas, and between North Korea and the United States, would have been unthinkable at the end of last year, after months of escalating tension, and fear of war, over the North’s weapons programs.
But then Kim declared in a New Year’s speech his country was “a peace-loving and responsible nuclear power” and called for lower military tension and improved ties with the South.
He also said he was considering sending a delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February, a visit that began a succession of steps to improve ties.
But finance ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized countries said in a statement they were still concerned about North Korea’s evasion of sanctions and its “ability to access the international financial system”.
CHINA’S XI TO VISIT PYONGYANG?
Pompeo’s visit to the North was arranged by South Korean intelligence chief Suh Hoon with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong Chol, and was intended to assess whether Kim was prepared to hold serious talks, a U.S. official said.
Pompeo flew from a U.S. air force base in Osan, south of Seoul, an official with the South’s defense ministry said. The South’s presidential office declined to comment on the trip.
Amid the diplomatic flurry, CNN reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping also planned to visit Pyongyang soon, after North Korean leader Kim made a surprise trip last month to China, its major sole ally.
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had no information about any Xi visit to North Korea.
“What I can stress is that China and North Korea have a tradition of high level mutual visits,” she told reporters.
“China is willing to strengthen high-level exchanges with North Korea, deepen strategic communications, expand talks and cooperation, and to bring out the important leading role of high-level contact in China-North Korea relations.”
Trump said on Tuesday he believed there was a lot of goodwill in the diplomatic push with North Korea, but added it was possible the summit – first proposed in March and which the president said could take place in late May or early June – may not happen, in which case the United States and its allies would maintain pressure on North Korea through sanctions.
Nevertheless, Pompeo’s conversations in North Korea had fueled Trump’s belief that productive negotiations were possible, according to a U.S. senior official briefed on the trip.
The two Koreas have meanwhile been pressing ahead with preparations for the inter-Korean summit next week.
South Korea’s presidential office said they had agreed to broadcast live, for the first time, parts of the summit, including the hand shake between the two leaders.
Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim and Joyce Lee in SEOUL, Susan Heavey, John Walcott and Steve Holland in WASHINGTON, and Christian Shepherd in BEIJING; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie