MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied ordering to strike his political rival Alexei Navalny, but in an exclusive interview with NBC News, he did not guarantee that the jailed Kremlin critic, who survived poisoning with an agent neurotoxic, would get out of prison alive.
“Look, such decisions in this country are not made by the president,” Putin said.
It was one of the many highlights of Putin’s first interview in three years with an American news organization, days before his meeting with President Joe Biden in Geneva.
Recalled that Navalny was not just any prisoner, Putin replied: “He will not be treated worse than anyone else.
Putin spoke for nearly an hour and a half as Biden met with leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized countries, from which Russia was suspended in 2014 after annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
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Relations between the United States and Russia are at their worst in decades, severely battered by a series of Moscow-related cyberattacks, along with a long list of old grievances, chiefly Russian interference in the 2016 and 2020 US elections. On Sunday, Biden said he agreed with Putin’s assessment that US-Russia relations had reached a low point.
Putin said US allegations that Russian hackers or the government itself were behind cyberattacks in the US were “stuffed” and he challenged NBC News, and by implication the US government, to produce proof that the Russians were involved.
“We have been accused of all kinds of things,” Putin said. “Election interference, cyber attacks and so on. And not once, not once, not once, did they bother to produce evidence or evidence. Just baseless accusations.”
As recently as April, Biden blacklisted six Russian tech companies that support the cyber program run by Putin’s intelligence services, along with dozens of other Russian entities and individuals, for “carrying out directed attempts by the Russian government to influence the 2020 US presidential election, and other acts of disinformation and interference. “
Putin also reiterated the call for the United States and Russia to join forces to fight cybercrime, saying: “It is our great hope that we can put this process in place with our American partners.”
He offered a cyber reboot with Washington while former President Donald Trump was still in office last year, but some in the United States have called his efforts dishonest.
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Throughout the interview, Putin relied on the Kremlin’s proven strategy of deflecting criticism by highlighting America’s failures, suggesting that critics of the West were hypocritical because every country, including Russia and the United States, acts in its own interests.
Asked about Biden’s criticisms that Russia had added to the global instability, he accused the United States of doing the same in Libya, Afghanistan and Syria. And the Russians don’t suppress internal dissent, he said, any more than the United States does with its laws against foreign agents.
He even pointed to the arrests of hundreds of suspects in the U.S. Capitol riot and the death of a rioter as evidence that the United States is also targeting its citizens for their political views, just as Russia is accused of suffocating the dissent. (He did not note that people were not arrested for their opinions but for the physical destruction and violence they are accused of inflicting on the seat of government in Washington.)
“We have a saying, ‘Don’t be mad at the mirror if you’re ugly,’” he said. “It has nothing to do with you personally. But if anyone blames us for something, what I’m saying is, why don’t you look at yourself? You will see yourself in the mirror, not us.”
Putin showed flashes of defiance when asked if it was a “coincidence” that several other political rivals have been assassinated in recent years.
“We don’t have that kind of habit of murdering anyone,” Putin said when asked if he had ordered Navalny’s death.
Kremlin observers, however, claim that Russian security services have acted with impunity inside and outside the country.
Biden, who has made it clear that he sees his first trip abroad as president as a chance to rally allies around the cause of liberal democracy against the authoritarian threat from Russia and China, said that the Kremlin is the greatest threat to US security and alliances. .
More than once, Biden has recounted how he told Putin to his face that he had “no soul” during a visit to the Kremlin in 2011 while he was vice president.
“I don’t remember that particular part of our conversations,” Putin said when asked about the characterization.
When asked what he thinks of Biden, Putin said he was a professional and suggested he could work with him.
“He has spent most of his adult life in politics,” he said.
Putin had warm words for Trump, who has been accused of getting close to him. After their July 2018 summit in Helsinki, Trump sent shockwaves by refusing to side with US intelligence agencies in the face of Putin’s denials of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“Mr. Trump is an extraordinary individual, a talented individual, otherwise he would not have become President of the United States,” Putin said. “He’s a colorful individual.”
But Putin also stressed the need for “predictability and stability” in Russia’s relations with the United States, adding: “This is something we haven’t seen in recent years.”
The high-profile interview began with Putin categorically denying a Washington Post report that Russia was preparing to offer Iran an advanced satellite system that would allow Tehran to track military targets, including remaining US troops in Iraq.
“This is just fake news,” he said. “At the very least, I don’t know anything about that sort of thing. Those who talk about it probably know more about it. It’s just nonsense, garbage.”
Putin later rejected allegations against Russia, among which she allegedly interfered in the US elections and carried out cyber attacks.
“I am surprised that we have not yet been accused of provoking the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said.
When asked what he thinks of Black Lives Matter, Putin replied, “There are reasons for this.”
“We have always treated with understanding the struggle of African Americans for their rights,” said Putin, who added that he could not approve of any “extreme” behavior on the part of the movement.
Putin is often accused of stifling dissent in Russia by branding serious political opponents and anti-Kremlin parties “extremists” and using pro-government courts to jail rivals like Navalny on bogus corruption charges and other accusations.
“You present it as dissent and intolerance of dissent in Russia,” Putin said. “We see it completely differently.”
He then embarked on the Jan.6 assault on Congress by a pro-Trump mob determined to stop the counting of the electoral votes in Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. The Senate was evacuated and the Deputy President Mike Pence and other officials were taken to safety. Several people were killed, including a Capitol police officer.
Putin suggested that the 500 or so riot suspects who were arrested are subject to “persecution for political opinions.”
“Did you order the assassination of the woman who entered Congress and was shot dead by a police officer? Putin said, referring to Ashli Babbitt, one of the rioters. “Do you know that 450 people were arrested after entering Congress? And they didn’t go there to steal a laptop. They came with political demands.”
Babbitt, 35, was an Air Force veteran and a staunch supporter of Trump. No charges were laid against the Capitol Police officer who pulled the trigger.
The laptop Putin referred to was taken from the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The FBI said a suspected rioter was planning to sell him to the Russian Secret Service.
The fate of two Americans imprisoned in Russia, former Marine Trevor Reed and Michigan business executive Paul Whelan, will be on the agenda when Biden and Putin meet on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony said Blinken this weekend. Putin also suggested he was open to a possible prisoner swap.
Asked about the imprisoned men, Putin said Reed was a “troublemaker” and a “drunk” who “got his head screwed and started fighting.” Reed is serving a nine-year sentence for beating a Russian policeman in 2019, a charge the US ambassador to Russia called “fragile.”
Whelan, who also served in the Marines, was convicted last year of espionage – a charge he denies – and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Turning to Belarus, Putin insisted he did not know in advance that the country’s besieged president, Alexander Lukashenko, would capture an opposition journalist by using a ruse to force his plane to land. emergency in the capital, Minsk.
He also denied that Russia was considering ending cooperation with the United States in space, one of their last areas of common interest, despite threats from its head of space agency to withdraw from the country. International Space Station project.
“I think you just misunderstood,” Putin said. “We are interested in continuing to work with the United States in this direction, and we will continue to do so if our American partners do not refuse to do so.”
And when asked about recent Russian troop movements near the Ukrainian border that fueled fears of an invasion, Putin said Russia was conducting military exercises on its own territory.
He said NATO regularly conducts military exercises near the Russian border and referred to the US military exercises in Alaska, which he said were near Russian territory.
“Imagine if we sent our troops close to your borders,” Putin said. “What would have been your response? “
Keir Simmons, Matt Bodner and Tatyana Chistikova reported from Moscow, Yuliya Talmazan and Laura Saravia from London and Corky Siemaszko from New York.