Shaun Walker in Moscow
Vladimir Putin has dismissed allegations of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s election campaign team as “invented” during his annual press conference in Moscow.
“It was all invented by people opposed to Trump to make him seem illegitimate,” the Russian president said on Thursday, in response to a question about repeated contacts between members of the US president’s campaign and Russian officials or proxies.
“These people are inflicting damage to their domestic political situation, incapacitating the president and showing a lack of respect to the electorate.”
As usual, the press conference touched on a mixture of big geopolitical matters and local issues. Detailed questions were asked about particular regional road projects, the wheat harvest and the legality of attaching GPS trackers to cows.
Putin also railed at US politicians for demonising Russia and then expecting it to help on issues such as the North Korean nuclear programme. Separately, he suggested the allegations of a state-sponsored doping programme in sport, which have led to a ban on the Russian team participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics, could be an invention by the US.
Putin cast doubt on the integrity of the whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, suggesting he may have been drugged by the FBI. “He’s working under the control of American special services. What are they doing with him? What substances are they giving him so he says things?” he asked.
Some questions are agreed with the Kremlin press service in advance. Others are asked by journalists who bring placards, flags or other items to wave in the air in the hope of attracting Putin’s attention. This year, the most passionate question was about the price of fish, asked by a man who admitted he had posed as a journalist to get in, and was in fact the director of an Arctic fish plant.
The presidential election take place in March, and Putin recently confirmed what everyone has long known by saying he would run. He will almost certainly win another six-year term, but his campaign has hardly begun and he was vague when asked about his electoral manifesto.
“Infrastructure, health, education and technology,” he said. “This is not the right format to go into detail.”
Putin announced that he would be running as an independent candidate, not as a candidate from the Kremlin-backed United Russia party, resolving one of the few minor intrigues that remained about the election.
Most of Russia’s ruling class are part of United Russia, but by distancing himself from the party, Putin will attempt to portray himself as above the fray of Russia’s corrupt political elite.
Asked early on whether he was bored by the lack of political competition, Putin said the main problem the opposition faced was the lack of a programme. As usual, he made no reference by name to Alexei Navalny, the opposition politician who has opened campaign headquarters in cities across Russia, and who launched his electoral programme the day before.
In what will probably be the closest Russia gets to a public debate before the vote, Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite-turned-journalist who wants to run for president on a liberal platform, attended the conference and asked Putin why Navalny was not allowed to run.
“Are the authorities really scared of honest competition?” she said.
In response, Putin compared Navalny to the former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who is accused of trying to foment unrest in Ukraine, though he refused to refer to Navalny by name.
“Those who you’ve named are the same as Saakashvili, only the Russian version. And you want these Saakashvilis to destabilise the situation in the country? Do you want attempted coups? We’ve lived through all that. Do you really want to go back to all that? I am sure that the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens do not want this,” he said.
There were other trickier questions amid the softball enquiries: a Ukrainian journalist was given his annual chance to ask a toughly worded question about Russian actions in eastern Ukraine (to shouts of “shame” and “provocateur” from Russian journalists). Tatyana Felgenhauer, a journalist at the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, who was nearly killed in a knife attack earlier this year, asked about the selective nature of the judicial system.
But with no follow-up questions allowed, the Russian president remained untroubled. At one point, Putin ordered a questioner to sit down and give up the microphone.
“This is not a discussion. You ask a question, I answer,” he said.
The handful of probing questions are likely to be Putin’s toughest grilling before the election. But much of the press conference was dour and procedural, and lacked the spark of Putin’s meetings with the press earlier in his rule.
It illustrated a central dilemma for his electoral campaign: after 18 years of Putin, how can the Kremlin keep things interesting without risking a loss of control?