MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused the United States of trying to interfere with Russia's presidential campaign in retaliation for what the Kremlin dismisses as unfounded U.S. allegations that Moscow interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential vote.
On the eve of a possible meeting with President Trump at an economic forum in Vietnam, Putin suggested that the United States is pressing for the disqualification of Russian athletes at the 2018 Winter Olympics as a way of creating discontent with his tenure as president.
The International Olympic Committee recently banned six Russian cross-country skiers, including two 2014 Olympic medalists, from future competition in an ongoing doping investigation based on a damning 2016 report. With fewer than 100 days before the beginning of the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, the IOC has still not made a decision about whether to let the country that hosted the 2014 Games participate.
"What worries me is that the Olympic Games are due to start in February, and when is our presidential election? In March," Putin told workers at a Ural Mountains factory, according to Russian news agencies. "There are very strong suspicions that all that is done because someone needs to create an atmosphere of discontent among sports fans and athletes over the state's alleged involvement in violations and responsibility for it."
The United States, he said, "wants to create problems in the Russian presidential election in response to our alleged interference in theirs."
In September, after the World Anti-Doping Agency dismissed 95 cases of suspected Russian doping citing lack of evidence, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and 16 other national anti-doping organizations demanded Russia still be banned from next year's Winter Olympics.
"The IOC needs to stop kicking the can down the road and immediately issue meaningful consequences," the 17 organizations said in a joint statement.
Russia's reputation as an Olympic power was sundered in 2016 with the release of the McLaren report, which alleged Russia ran a widespread, state-sponsored doping program from at least 2011 until 2016.
The report alleges the "institutional conspiracy" included more than 1,000 athletes in more than 30 sports, and led to an IOC investigation to re-examine athletes' samples andthe containers that held those samples for evidence of tampering. To date, 15 Russian athletes from the 2012 and 2014 Olympics have been stripped of medals because of doping. More disqualifications could still come as the IOC aims to make a decision about Russia's participation in PyeongChang in December.
In his remarks Thursday, Putin implied that the United States held undue leverage over the IOC through sponsorships, broadcasting rights and advertising.
"It is a large body of ties and dependencies," the Russian president said. "And the controlling interest is in the United States, because major companies contracting and paying for television broadcasting rights, major sponsors, major advertisers are there."
Trump's election inspired hopes in Russia of improved relations with Washington, but with an investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow producing its first indictments, Russian observers expect little progress if the two presidents meet at an Asian economic summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Friday. A Kremlin spokesman on Thursday said the details of a possible meeting were still being worked out.
Russia's strong showing in Sochi in 2014 was seen "as a symbol of national revival and return to a great power status, healing the wounds of the U.S.S.R.'s collapse," said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at Carnegie Moscow Center. "Since the victory was fake, many people turn their anger on a government that couldn't build up a sport system that would produce champions, and instead created a system of cheating."
By turning the blame on Russia's enemies in the West, he said, Putin hopes he can deflect that anger — and inspire Russians to vote in force for him next March.
"If the Americans want to interfere in the Russian elections, as Putin's narrative suggests, then going to the polls is an act of patriotic war against the aggressor," Gabuev said. "If the Americans want to steal the elections, true Russians should organize and go vote for Putin — this seems to be the hidden message of the accusations."
Payne reported from Washington.