SALT LAKE CITY — The relationship between the United States and Russia is "Cold War-esque," Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said, making it difficult for U.S. diplomats and members of the LDS Church there and posing new dangers at home.
Stewart told KSL-TV he backed President Barack Obama's recently announced sanctions against Russia for the country's alleged role in attempts to disrupt the U.S. presidential election through computer hacking.
But the congressman, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, questioned whether Obama went far enough and suggested President-elect Donald Trump may be tougher once he receives more intelligence briefings and realizes the threat.
Obama ordered 35 Russian officials to leave the country and the closure of two Russian compounds, along with sanctions against Russian intelligence agencies in the administration's strongest-ever response to a cyberattack.
Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by saying he would not expel American diplomats from Russia despite a push from his top deputies to do so. Putin said he will look to restore relations with the United States once Trump takes office.
Trump, who spoke during the campaign of his admiration for the Russian leader, praised Putin's response on Twitter: "Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!"
Stewart described Putin as "a KGB thug" who is "very good at tradecraft" practiced as an officer for the security agency of the former Soviet Union during past political hostility with the United States and other Western nations.
Obama's action against Russia "was appropriate, but it was long past due and it probably wasn't enough," Stewart, a Trump supporter, said. "What Russia is doing is aggressive. It's illegal and harmful."
That includes what he said is harassment of U.S. diplomats by Russian authorities, including breaking into their homes and reportedly killing pets. In June, a U.S. diplomat was assaulted by a Russian security guard at the U.S. Embassy.
Stewart, who looked into the treatment of Americans in Russia during a trip there in August, said the tensions between the two nations have "already made it very very difficult for missionaries" of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Last summer, LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said six volunteers from a Russian mission were "detained by local authorities for a brief period, seeking information about the status of their visas."
Hawkins said then that they were released a few hours later and three of the volunteers were reassigned to another Russian-speaking mission outside of the country "because of technicalities related to their visas."
The incident came after Putin signed an antiterrorism law that also restricts missionary work in Russia. Mormon missionaries in Russia are now referred to as volunteers.
Stewart said he hopes the recent events between the two counties don't affect Mormon volunteers in Russia "but the truth is, unless we change its trajectory, I'm afraid that it will."
He said while he doesn't believe Russia is targeting Mormons, it views "any Western religion or Western culture as a threat, and the LDS Church is perceived as being that."
The congressman also raised concerns about cyberthreats to the nation's power grid and other infrastructure that "could actually hurt and endanger American lives." The Washington Post reported a Russian operation hacked a Vermont utility.
Putin has been blamed for the computer hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, which was widely seen as intended to sway voters to Trump.
Stewart said even if Putin didn't directly command the hackers to interfere in the election, he was "authorizing them by his silence." He said that no one is Russia "does anything against the will of Vladimir Putin."
But the congressman said he sees no evidence that the Russians wanted Trump to win over Clinton, a former secretary of state under Obama. Trump, he said, campaigned on putting America first, and "Russians certainly heard that message.”
There has been "political interpretation" of intelligence briefings about the election hacking, Stewart said. He said attempts were also made to hack into the Republican National Committee but were not successful.
Contributing: Ladd Egan