By PATRICK REEVEL, ABC News
(MOSCOW) — Russian President Vladimir Putin held his marathon end-of-year press conference Thursday, using it to comment briefly on President-elect Joe Biden and to deny an explosive investigation this week suggesting a Russian security services hit squad carried out the poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny with a nerve agent.
The annual, hourslong press conference, during which he takes dozens of questions in front of hundreds of journalists, is a fixture of Putin’s rule. But because of the coronavirus pandemic this year he was not present in the hall where it takes place. Instead, he was beamed in on screens from his residence at Novo-Ogaryovo just outside Moscow, where he has been isolating.
Dozens of journalists still attended to ask Putin questions in Moscow and other halls set up across Russia, with reporters waving signs and sometimes dressing up in the hopes of attracting his attention.
The event went ahead despite an out-of-control pandemic in Russia that is seeing tens of thousands of new infections daily and that has already cause almost 48,000 deaths officially and many more according to independent researchers. Russian state media asserted “exceptional” precautions were taken to protect reporters, who it said had to present negative coronavirus tests and entered through special disinfectant gates.
The event is stage-managed, but journalists there are allowed to ask what they want, although importantly there is usually no opportunity to follow up. As usual, Putin answered questions of very broad range of subjects, ranging from the pandemic and relations with the U.S., to the price of pasta and problems with people’s local gas supplies.
On Navalny poisoning: ‘If they wanted to they would have finished the job’
Putin denied an extraordinary investigation this week by the independent group Bellingcat that implicated a Russian security services’ hit squad in the poisoning of Navalny with a Novichok nerve agent this summer.
The detailed investigation, based on phone and flight records, said officers from Russia’s FSB intelligence agency had followed Navalny for years and were present in the Siberian city of Tomsk when he was poisoned.
MORE: Russian intelligence hit squad poisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny: Report
Putin rejected the investigation as invented by U.S. intelligence and said that if the FSB had wanted to poison Navalny they would have “finished the job.”
“It’s no investigation. It’s the legalization of material from the American intelligence services,” Putin said.
“If that’s so — and it is so, believe me — then this patient in the Berlin clinic, he benefits from the support of the American intelligence services in the given case. Then of course the security services should keep an eye on him. That absolutely doesn’t mean they need to poison him, who needs that?” Putin said, laughing. “If they wanted to, they would have finished the job.”
On Biden and Trump
Putin spoke quite positively about Biden in some of his first comments since the election, calling him “experienced” and suggesting he hoped for improved relations with the U.S. He said they’d been “hostage” to American domestic politics during the Trump administration. Putin denied Russian hackers had helped elect Donald Trump president in 2016 and said he believed Biden understood that.
“We start from the position that the newly elected president of the U.S. will get what is happening. He’s an experienced person — both in internal and external politics. And we count on all the problems, which have arisen — well if not all, at least part of them — will be resolved under the new administration,” Putin said.
Putin also said he believed Trump would have no trouble finding work after leaving the presidency, noting his strong result in the election and adding he doesn’t believe Trump intends to leave politics.
Russian intelligence hit squad poisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny: Report
On getting the vaccine
Putin said he has not yet received Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, explaining that because he is over 60 years old he is not currently cleared to take it. But he said he “definitely” will once he is allowed.
“I am quite a law-abiding person. I listen to our specialists,” Putin said. “For those like me, the vaccine hasn’t reached us yet.”
Mass vaccinations with the Sputnik V vaccine have started slowly for at-risk groups in Russia, but those over 60 are not yet permitted to get it because authorities say there is insufficient data about its effects on that age group. A clinical trial for over-60 individuals is currently underway.
On relations with the West
A BBC reporter asked Putin if he thinks he bears any responsibility for the current tensions between Russia and the West, or if Moscow is “warm and cuddly” and blameless.
Putin rejected any blame and answered: “Compared with you — yes, we’re warm and cuddly.”
He accused Western countries of breaking their promise not to expand NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union and noted Russia’s military budget is far less than the U.S.
It’s easy to conclude, Putin said, “who is ‘warm and cuddly’ and who is prickly and aggressive.”
On an arms race
Putin repeated that Russia hopes a key arms control agreement with the U.S., the New START treaty, can be saved before it expires in February. The treaty is the last major arms control agreement between Russia and the U.S., and experts have warned its lapsing could trigger a new arms race.
Putin has suggested extending the treaty for a year with no preconditions while a new agreement is negotiated. He noted he had seen public statements from Biden that he also wants to preserve the treaty, but said for now Russia has had no clear responses to its proposals.
On the pandemic
Most of the questions were on the pandemic and Putin faced some tough-worded ones on the grim situation for health workers in Russia and on the lack of government support for people during the lockdown imposed during the first wave.
Putin acknowledged things had been bad in Russia, but repeatedly noted they had been bad everywhere.
“It’s like the weather — it’s can be good or bad. It’s the same with a year — there are some pluses and minuses. Of course, this year is connected with problems which are on everyone’s lips, that’s the pandemic. But that’s characteristic for the whole world,” Putin said. “But have met these problems honorably, better even than some countries in the world.”
Russia has recorded the fourth-highest number of coronavirus cases in the world and is registering over 27,000 new cases daily. Independent experts have accused Russian authorities of deliberately undercounting case numbers and deaths. Russia’s so-called “excess deaths,” the measure used globally for estimating the pandemic’s toll, stands at 160,000 deaths between March and October, much higher than the official toll of 47,994.
Despite the numbers that are as bad or worse than many European countries, the Kremlin has resisted imposing tough restrictions during the second wave — as has been done in Europe — and Putin said again Thursday there was no plan for a lockdown.
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