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Putin deflects interference allegations with own claims of U.S. efforts to undermine Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends his annual end-of-year news conference on Dec. 17. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Reuters)

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin tried Thursday to turn the tables on long-standing hacking and political interference allegations against Russia, claiming that the United States was waging similar efforts regarding Moscow's affairs.

At his annual marathon news conference, Putin cast a wide net with unsupported assertions that U.S. hands were behind some of the most high-profile troubles for the Kremlin, including accusations that Russian agents were behind the August nerve agent poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

But Putin did not expand on Kremlin denials that Russian government hackers were behind a recent digital spying operation that hit the Department of Homeland Security, the State, Treasury and Commerce departments, and the National Institutes of Health.

Russian authorities often seek to portray the West as steeped in anti-Russian bias and working to undermine Moscow. Putin's latest deflections also could reflect his growing domestic difficulties, including an economy in tatters from low oil prices and the pandemic.

Putin, however, expressed some hope of better relations with the incoming Biden administration, just days after issuing a belated congratulations to the president-elect.

Putin's remarks on the United States were prompted by famous musician-turned-journalist Sergei Shnurov, who asked why Russian hackers didn't help President Trump get reelected.

Putin angrily called the question a "provocation." He repeated claims that U.S. intelligence agencies' conclusion that Russia used hacking, disinformation and other methods in the 2016 election to boost Trump are "allegations used to make relations between our two nations worse, to delegitimize the presidency of the outgoing U.S. president."

"And in this way, U.S.-Russian relations are all hostage to American domestic affairs. I think this is worse for Americans themselves," Putin said.

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Putin took it a step further and answered a question on recent Russian media investigations into the financial activities of Putin's family and entourage by alleging U.S. interference in Russia's domestic affairs.

“That’s the State Department and U.S. security services. They are the real authors. Anyway, this has clearly been done on their orders. This is absolutely obvious,” Putin said, without offering evidence. He added that “the goal is revenge and attempts to influence public opinion in our country in order to interfere in our domestic life.”

Then he addressed Navalny's poisoning for the first time since the website Bellingcat released a joint investigation Monday detailing how a team of Russian state security officers trailed Navalny for years, including on the trip to Siberia on which he was poisoned in August.

"This is not an investigation. This is an attempt to legitimize the materials provided by American intelligence officers," Putin said. Referring to Navalny as "the patient at the Berlin clinic," he said the opposition leader "is actually supported by U.S. intelligence. Of course he's followed by other intelligence services."

Bellingcat's investigation relied on leaked personal data that is widely available for purchase in Russia.

Putin seemed to confirm that Navalny was being surveilled but denied that Moscow was responsible for his poisoning. He said with a laugh: "Who needs him anyway? If we had really wanted, we'd have finished the job."

Navalny, 44, was in a medically induced coma for more than two weeks after becoming gravely ill during a flight from Siberia to Moscow. The Berlin hospital to which he was later transferred attributed his condition to a toxin similar to the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, the same substance that Britain said Russian state security agents used on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, in 2018.

The Kremlin has previously claimed that Navalny, who was blocked from running for president against Putin in 2018, works with U.S. intelligence, also without providing any proof.

The more than four-hour news conference took on a new look this year because of the coronavirus. Putin spent the first hour addressing how the country has handled the pandemic, answering questions from his suburban Moscow residence in Novo-Ogaryovo.

Journalists from state, foreign and regional media posed their queries over video link from one of several centers all over the country. Putin also took a handful of questions from ordinary Russians.

Because Putin was one of the last world leaders to congratulate Biden on his win, Thursday was the first time Putin answered questions about their possible future relations, suggesting that the incoming administration might address some of the lingering tensions between the two countries.

“We believe the U.S. president-elect will sort things out due to his domestic and foreign policy experience and hope that all arising problems — if not all, then at least some of them — will be resolved during the tenure of the next administration,” Putin said.

In response to a query about whether Trump might be offered asylum in Russia, Putin replied that: "I don't think that there is any need for Mr. Trump to come and seek asylum in Russia because he has the support of 50 percent of the American population. He has a huge base of support. He's not going to exit America's political life."

As for his own political future, Putin said he hasn’t decided yet if he’ll seek a fifth term in office when his current one ends in 2024. As part of an approval of a set of constitutional amendments earlier this year, Putin can run for reelection two more times.

“Technically, there is this permission from the people,” Putin said. “Whether to do this or not, I’ll see.”

The first question to Putin on Thursday came from the Far East, about whether he viewed the year as a good or bad one. Putin opted to discuss the pandemic and said that Russia has fared better than most countries. Russia’s 2.7 million total cases are the fourth-most in the world, and new cases have surpassed 25,000 per day. Data published by the state statistics service last week revealed that 30 percent more people died this October than a year ago.

“Despite numerous problem that we face and there are so many problems — like a sea full of problems — but despite that, we managed to cope with them,” he said.

Asked whether he’s been vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V jab, Putin, 68, said he hasn’t because it’s not recommended for people over 60 but will “definitely get vaccinated as soon as it becomes possible.”

“Production of this vaccine requires relevant plants, enterprises and hardware all that will be scaled up,” Putin said. “I expect all of these plans to be fulfilled and production of millions of vaccine doses to be ensured next year, at the beginning of the year.”

Putin ended the news conference with a gesture, promising Russian families with children under the age of 7 one-time payments of 5,000 rubles, or about $68.

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