At Annual News Conference, Putin Says U.S. Ties Can't Get Worse, Hopes For Improvement
RFE/RL December 23, 2016
Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and said the Democratic Party should blame itself for Hillary Clinton's loss to Republican Donald Trump in the U.S. election.
In a wide-ranging annual press conference that included ample attention to U.S. politics and the accusations of Russian interference, Putin said that Moscow's ties with the United States "can't get any worse" and voiced hope that they will improve.
Speaking to some 1,500 Russian and foreign journalists close to the end of the nearly four-hour marathon on December 23, Putin cited Trump as saying during his campaign that relations cannot get worse, and added that he agrees with that.
"Together we will think about how to make them better," Putin said.
He asserted that Obama's administration "divides" the United States and said the U.S. "Democratic Party blames others for its own failures."
The U.S. intelligence community said in October it had concluded that hackers directed by the Russian government intruded into Democratic Party servers and e-mail accounts, and The Washington Post reported last week that the FBI shared the CIA's conclusions that Russian hackers intervened to help Trump beat Clinton in the November 8 vote.
Putin seemed to mock those findings, saying that "the Democratic Party lost not only the presidential election, but also elections to the Senate and Congress, where the Republicans have the majority. What is that -- also our, also my work?"
He repeated what he has said before: that what matters is not who did the hacking but the content that was revealed.
"Regarding the idea that Russian hackers hacked the Democratic Party's electronic mail, I think...Trump answered that in a very good way. He said, 'How would we know that it was Russia that hacked it? Maybe it was some other country or maybe someone lying on a sofa did it,'" Putin said.
"Well, the issue is not who did it but what was revealed by those hackers," he said. "They revealed the ways the Democratic Party was manipulating public opinion while choosing its candidate. ... And after the data was released, the chief of the Democratic Party's election committee resigned. That proves the fact that the data was true. That is what is most important -- not who did it."
Putin also asserted that Obama's administration has lost touch with average Americans and that many Americans share his views on the threats facing the world and approve of Russia's support for "traditional values."
Putin followed tradition by starting the press conference with upbeat comments on the economy and demographics, saying that the persistent contraction of Russia's recession-plagued economy is slowing and that capital flight is decreasing.
He said that Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to decline by 0.5 to 0.6 percent in 2016 -- far less than in 2015 -- while inflation is forecast at a "record low" 5.5 percent, and a "small increase" in real wages in recent months "instills confidence in the future."
In a year marked by scandals, Putin flatly denied that Russia has ever had a state-organized doping system for sports. He said that Russia, "like any country," has problems with doping and promised to tackle them.
However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said on December 23 that 28 Russian athletes who took part in the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi face disciplinary proceedings over possible manipulation of their urine samples.
The step by the IOC comes after a World Anti-Doping Agency report released this month said that more than 1,000 Russian competitors in more than 30 sports were involved in a conspiracy to conceal positive drug tests over the course of five years.
Putin repeated frequent criticism of the United States for building a missile-defense system in Europe and also repeated his statement from a day earlier that Russia's military is stronger than any "potential aggressor."
But he hinted that he was not including the United States as a potential aggressor, even though he has frequently portrayed the United States and NATO as posing potential threats to Russia's security.
"The Russian Federation today is stronger than any potential -- listen carefully -- aggressor. This is very important. I did not say this by accident yesterday," he said. "What is an aggressor? It is someone who can potentially launch an attack against the Russian Federation."
Speaking after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces captured the eastern part of the city of Aleppo from rebels in a devastating Russian-backed campaign, Putin said he believes "it is necessary to start talks on a cease-fire across Syria and then start real steps towards the political resolution of the situation."
Russia has faced vocal criticism from the West and human rights groups over its support for Assad throughout the Syrian war, which has killed an estimated 300,000 people since it started with a government crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011.
On domestic politics, Putin suggested he would not move the next presidential election, due to be held in March 2018, up to 2017.
Amid widespread speculation that he would do so, Putin answered a question about the issue by saying it would be "possible but inexpedient" to hold the election in 2017.
Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, is widely expected to run for a new six-year term but has not announced his candidacy.
Putin evaded a question about whether a key figure in the investigation into the killing of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov will be forced to testify at a trial that is under way.
The court trying five men charged in connection with Nemtsov's February 2015 slaying earlier this month summoned Ruslan Geremeyev, deputy commander of a special police battalion in Chechnya, to testify.
Lawyers for Nemtsov's family believe testimony from Geremeyev could help determine who ordered Nemtsov's contract-style killing on a bridge near the Kremlin, but he has never been questioned and his whereabouts are unknown, leading lawyers to suspect he may be under the protection of Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
"I fully support investigations into the case. I hope that all the people involved and those guilty in that crime will be found," Putin said. But he did not respond to a portion of the question about Geremeyev.
The annual press conference had been scheduled for December 22 but was postponed by one day because of the funeral of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, who was assassinated in Ankara on December 19.
Ambassador Andrei Karlov was shot by an off-duty police officer who shouted "Don't forget Aleppo!"
The envoy's killing was "was, of course, an attack on Russia and on Russian-Turkish ties," Putin said at the press conference.
"Will this hinder the development of Russian-Turkish relations? No, it won't. Because we understand the importance…of Russian-Turkish relations and will strive in every way to develop them," he said.
Russia and Turkey have supported opposing sides in the Syrian civil war. But their ties have improved substantially after being badly strained when Turkish jets shot down a Russian warplane along the Turkey-Syria border in November 2015.
Putin also voiced confidence that Russia's relations with Ukraine would improve "sooner or later."
Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014 after sending in troops and staging a referendum considered illegitimate by most countries, and backs separatists whose war against Kyiv's forces has killed more than 9,750 people since April 2014.
Putin said a bridge under construction between Russia and Crimea would help develop commercial and humanitarian links between the two countries once relations improve -- a remark likely to irritate Ukraine, which demands that Russia return the peninsula to its control.
Putin said that an existing four-country format for talks aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine -- involving France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine -- "does not operate super efficiently" but that "there is no alternative."
"Should we lose this mechanism, this tool, the situation will deteriorate and will do so rather rapidly," he said.
Putin placed blame on the European Union for the developments that have unfolded in Ukraine since pro-European protests pushed President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February 2014, after he scrapped plans for a landmark agreement to tighten EU-Ukraine ties.
He criticized the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and EU in response to Russia's seizure of Crimea and support for the separatists.
"We did not initiate the worsening of our ties with the EU. It was the EU that imposed sanctions against us, and we had to react with our own restriction," he said, referring to a Russian ban on most foods from the EU.
"I have always said that only joint [West-Russia] efforts can tackle terrorism," he added. "But how such efforts can be united if we have sanctions?"
Putin also suggested that he sees the United States as interfering with Russia's relations with the EU, saying Moscow wants the EU to be "a reliable and strong partner...without a third country's involvement."
Putin was still taking questions more than 3 1/2 hours after the press conference began. His longest annual press conference, in 2008, lasted four hours and 40 minutes.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, TASS, RIA, and Interfax
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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