MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has a message for the White House and Democratic leaders who accuse him of stealing their candidate’s victory: Don’t be sore losers.
That was how Putin answered a question Friday at his nationally televised annual news conference about whether Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.
The Democrats “are losing on all fronts and looking elsewhere for things to blame,” he told the nearly 1,400 journalists packed into a Moscow convention hall for the nearly four-hour event. “In my view, this, how shall I say it, degrades their own dignity. You have to know how to lose with dignity.”
The Kremlin leader — who also sent an upbeat letter to Trump last week that the president-elect revealed Friday — pointed out that Republicans had won the House and Senate, as well.
“Did we do that, too?” he asked with a slight grin.
To chide the Democratic leadership, Putin invoked the U.S. president he occasionally mentions as someone he admires. He appears to seek favorable comparison to Franklin D. Roosevelt, America’s longest-serving head of state, because of his own efforts to help Russia prosper after the ruinous depression that followed the Soviet Union’s demise.
“Outstanding figures in American history from the ranks of the Democratic Party would likely be turning in their graves. Roosevelt certainly would be,” Putin told the journalists.
“Trump understood the mood of the people and kept going until the end, when nobody believed in him,” Putin said, adding with another wry smile, “except for you and me.”
Trump’s transition team said Friday that Putin had sent a letter Dec. 15 wishing the president-elect a merry Christmas and conveying a desire “to take real steps to restore the framework of bilateral cooperation in different areas as well as bring our level of collaboration on the international scene to a qualitatively new level.”
“A very nice letter from Vladimir Putin; his thoughts are so correct,” Trump’s transition team quoted the president-elect as saying. “I hope both sides are able to live up to these thoughts, and we do not have to travel an alternate path.”
Putin sent a similarly worded message to President Obama on July 4, according to the Kremlin website.
The Russian leader has repeatedly denied involvement in the U.S. election despite the accusations from the White House, and the Kremlin has questioned the evidence for the claims. On Friday, Putin borrowed some of Trump’s dismissive rhetoric, remarking, “Maybe it was someone lying on the couch who did it.”
Putin also reiterated at the news conference his interest in better ties with the United States after the inauguration of Trump, who, during the campaign, espoused positions favorable to Russia, including joining forces to fight terrorism and considering recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The Russian president played down the significance of Trump’s tweet Thursday calling for the United States to expand its nuclear arsenal, calling it “nothing unusual” and saying that Moscow did not intend to pursue an arms race “that we can’t afford.”
Putin did say that Russia was modernizing its nuclear strike capability, which he said would enable it to overpower any missile defenses the United States is developing. Russia, he said, “will be stronger than any aggressor.”
Putin has given one news conference a year at the end of December for the 12 years he has been president (taking a break for the four years he was prime minister). Some have speculated that he might want to move up the next presidential election, due in 2018, while his popularity sits above 80 percent, but he dismissed a question on the timing from an American reporter and gave a noncommittal answer on whether he would throw his hat in the ring.
He has consistently refused to confirm whether he will run for office again or retire.
Putin, always concerned with his popularity rating, touted a few items of good news about the Russian economy, hailing what he called record-low inflation of 5.5 percent and congratulating villagers on this year’s harvest. He agreed with a reporter who criticized the lavish homes of managers in state companies.
“One should be more modest,” he said.
The event was largely low-key and missing the humorous moments of previous years. Putin also got cheers a couple of times, most notably when he stated, “Patriotism is the only thing that unites us.”
In a recent poll by the Yuri Levada Analytical Center that gave Russians an opportunity to name the issues they consider most important, 30 percent of respondents mentioned inflation, 28 percent mentioned the election of Trump, and 22 percent mentioned Syria. Russia’s efforts to mediate the civil war in that country are at the top of the nightly news here.
Putin moved the news conference back a day to attend the funeral of his slain ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, who was shot dead in public by a man shouting slogans about the war in Syria.
Since the assassination, Moscow and Ankara have made a show of their willingness to work together and, along with Iran, bring a settlement to Syria.
Putin touted the alliance’s success in negotiating an agreement to evacuate fighters and civilians from the Syrian city of Aleppo, saying, “Without our participation, it would have been impossible.”
The Russia-Turkey-Iran troika met in Moscow on Tuesday. The United States’ absence was a sign not only of the stalemate of U.S.-Russian talks over Syria but also of the bad blood in the relationship as a whole.
“Mr. Trump did, after all, say during the election campaign that he thought it right to normalize U.S.-Russia links and said it would not get worse,” Putin said. “Because they cannot get any worse, I agree with him on that. We’ll think together about how to make the situation better.”
Someone asked whether Putin would accept an invitation from Trump to the United States.
“Of course I will, if he invites me,” Putin said.