MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday acknowledged the authenticity of recent disclosures about offshore companies owned by prominent Russians, including one of his oldest friends, but said they were not proof of any wrongdoing.
Putin, in a nearly four-hour question-and-answer session, also took aim at the international team of journalists that produced the Panama Papers report detailing shell companies, tax havens and financial dealings by political figures and others around the world.
He claimed that news reports on the trove of leaked documents, from the law firm Mossack Fonseca, were an attempt to “muddy the waters” at the behest of the U.S. government and New York-based investment bank Goldman Sachs, but he gave no details to back up his assertions.
“First of all, however strange it may seem, the information is accurate,” he said, referring to what was in the leak.
He suggested that it was part of a campaign to smear his reputation by disclosing business deals of his boyhood friend Sergei Pavlovich Roldugin, a well-known cellist.
“They are just trying to muddy the waters, that one of my friends is involved in some kind of business,” Putin said in the nationally televised remarks. “The question is whether or not money from these offshores reach officials, including the president.”
Putin said that it did not.
The release of the papers sent shock waves through world capitals, prompting the resignation of the prime minister of Iceland and protests against British Prime Minister David Cameron.
In Ukraine, the documents showed that President Petro Poroshenko had moved assets into offshore accounts while troops were engaged in heavy fighting with Russian-backed separatists in 2014.
In Russia, the documents showed that Roldugin — godfather to Putin’s oldest daughter, Maria — nominally owned companies registered in the British Virgin Islands, through which hundreds of millions of dollars had passed. Putin’s name did not appear in the documents, and the authors of the report did not say the documents proved any criminal acts.
The news reports have prompted a muted public reaction in Russia, where senior officials have brushed off the documents as either inconclusive or politically motivated.
Nonetheless, Russian state television aired a prime-time interview with Roldugin, who explained the flows of cash by saying that he had received gifts from Russian businessmen to buy expensive instruments from abroad, including a Steinway piano and a Stradivarius violin.
Early in the marathon Q&A broadcast, which was outfitted with a call center, a question sent by text message briefly appeared behind Putin: “Not a word about the offshore [accounts]. Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.”
When he addressed the question, Putin took special care to defend Roldugin, who also introduced Putin to former wife Lyudmila. Putin said Roldugin spent so much money acquiring musical instruments abroad that he went into debt.
“One may imagine greyhound puppies being accepted as a bribe in Russia, but I have never heard about violin or cello bribes,” Putin said, adding that Roldugin bought two violins and two cellos, one of which “costs about $12 million. Sergei Pavlovich has nothing left. He spent more money than he had on buying these instruments.”
The report was motivated by U.S. government agencies, Putin said, without elaborating, adding that “the closer the elections are, the more leaks of the sort will be happening.”
He also claimed that Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Munich-based newspaper that first published the leaks, was part of a media holding owned by Goldman Sachs, implying that the bank paid for the articles.
In an article published by Süddeutsche Zeitung on Thursday, managing director Stefan Hilscher said the company had no ties to Goldman Sachs.