The Russian government could take steps that harm the interests of U.S. businesses but will hold those in reserve for the moment, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated during a press conference on Friday.
The moves follow the Thursday announcement of U.S. sanctions on 32 entities and individuals and six Russian companies over allegations that Moscow was behind a hack on SolarWinds Corp. and interfered with last year’s presidential election. The Kremlin denies any role in those attacks.
Both sides said they sought to prevent the current tensions from spiraling. President Joe Biden said Thursday the U.S. doesn’t want to kick off a cycle of escalation but is ready to take additional moves if needed. Lavrov, too, warned that Russia could take additional measures. He threatened to oust as many as 150 more U.S. diplomats, “if the ‘exchange of pleasantries’ continues,” he noted ironically.
Despite new sanctions on Russia, the Kremlin has been at pains not to close the door to Biden’s offer of a summit, made via phone call with President Vladimir Putin Tuesday. The planned meeting comes after Russia sparked rising tensions by massing troops on Ukraine’s borders.
“As we have already said, we responded positively,” Lavrov said. “Now we’re studying various aspects of this initiative.”
Russia won’t immediately respond to the U.S. decision to ban its financial institutions from buying new Russian government debt in the primary market, Lavrov noted. “We for obvious reasons don’t have comparable leverage over the U.S.”
The ruble and Russian bonds initially fell on reports of the new U.S. sanctions but later made up the majority of their losses.
Lavrov said a top Kremlin official had “recommended” the U.S. ambassador return to Washington for consultations. Moscow summoned its envoy to Washington back to Russia last month after Biden answered affirmatively when asked by a reporter if he thought Putin was “a killer.”
Russia also will no longer allow the U.S. to employ local or third-country staff at its diplomatic facilities, won’t offer short-term visas for diplomats and will restrict their movements more, he said. Russia will close groups funded by the American government that he accused of meddling in its domestic politics.
Separately, Russian prosecutors requested a Moscow court declare opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and his Moscow campaign headquarters as extremist organizations, stepping up a crackdown. The group warned that the designation could subject all of its staff and volunteers to criminal prosecution.
Putin’s most prominent opponent has been in prison since he returned in January from Germany, where he was treated for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning that he and Western governments blamed on the Kremlin. Russian authorities deny any involvement.
Navalny, 44, has been on a hunger strike for above two weeks protesting prison authorities’ refusal to allow him proper medical care. His allies announced that guards threatened to begin force-feeding him, citing a worsening of his health detected in a blood test. The Penitentiary Service turned down a request for comment.