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Putin Chafes at US, Criticizes Response to Capitol Attack

Journalists gather in the press center as they listen to Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 4, 2021.
Journalists gather in the press center as they listen to Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 4, 2021.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday set a tough tone for his upcoming summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, accusing Washington of trying to contain Russia and citing its response to the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol as a manifestation of the West's double standards.

Speaking at an economic forum in St. Petersburg, Putin said that arms control, global conflicts, the coronavirus pandemic and climate change are among the issues he and Biden would discuss at their June 16 summit in Geneva.

"We need to find ways of looking for a settlement in our relations, which are at an extremely low level now," Putin said.

"We don't have any issues with the U.S.," he continued. "But it has an issue with us. It wants to contain our development and publicly talks about it. Economic restrictions and attempts to influence our country's domestic politics, relying on forces they consider their allies inside Russia, stem from that."

He voiced hope that the meeting would help ease tensions with Washington. Russia-U.S. ties have sunk to post-Cold War lows over Moscow's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, accusations of Russian interference in elections in the U.S. and other Western nations and cyberattacks that U.S. officials allege had Russian origins.

Putin reiterated that Russia rejects accusations of interfering in U.S. presidential elections, and he spoke critically of the U.S. response to the Capitol attack, which took place as Congress prepared to certify that Biden had defeated then-President Donald Trump in November.

"They weren't just a crowd of robbers and rioters. Those people had come with political demands," he said.

Putin pointed out that the heavy charges against hundreds of participants in the attack were filed even as the U.S. and its allies strongly criticized Belarus' crackdown on anti-government protests. And he charged that even as the West has criticized Russian authorities for a harsh response to anti-Kremlin demonstrations, protesters in Europe have faced an even tougher police response, with some shot in the eye by what he mockingly called "democratic rubber bullets."

'Corresponding interests'

At a later videoconference with the heads of major international news agencies, Putin said, "I don't expect any breakthrough results" from the summit with Biden. The United States and Russia have some corresponding interests, he said, "despite certain disagreements. These disagreements are not the result of Russian actions."

In response to a question from Associated Press President and Chief Executive Gary Pruitt, Putin returned to the theme of blaming the United States for poor relations.

"We are not taking steps first — I'm talking about the steps that deteriorated our relations. It was not us who introduced sanctions against us, it was the United States who did that on every occasion and even without grounds, just because our country exists," he said through a translator.

He also criticized the United States as being overconfident and drew a parallel with the Soviet Union.

"You know what the problem is? I will tell you as a former citizen of the former Soviet Union. What is the problem of empires — they think that they are so powerful that they can afford small errors and mistakes," he said. "But the number of problems is growing. There comes a time when they can no longer be dealt with. And the United States, with a confident gait, a firm step, is going straight along the path of the Soviet Union."

'Sheer nonsense'

At the earlier session, Putin praised Biden as a "very experienced statesman who has been involved in politics for his entire life ... and a very prudent and careful person. I do hope that our meeting will be positive."

He also took time to deride the allegations that Russian hackers targeted a U.S. pipeline and a meat plant — accusations that have clouded the atmosphere before the summit.

"I do hope that people would realize that there hasn't been any malicious Russian activity whatsoever," he said. "I heard something about the meat plant. It's sheer nonsense. We all understand it's just ridiculous. A pipeline? It's equally absurd."

Putin said "the U.S. special services should track down those ransom seekers. It's certainly not Russia that would extort money from some company. We don't deal with chicken or beef. It's plain ridiculous."

He alleged the hacking accusations were aired by those who try to "provoke new conflicts before our meeting with Biden," and added that some in the U.S. doubted Russian involvement in the hacks.

"It means that inside the American society, media and political class, there are people who want to find ways to repair U.S.-Russian relations," he said.

Thoughts on permafrost, pandemic

On other issues, Putin praised his country's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and called for a stronger worldwide response to global warming as he sought to bolster Russia's international standing.

Addressing the forum, Putin lauded the efficiency of Russian-designed vaccines and bemoaned what he described as "politically motivated bans" on their purchase in some countries.

Last year, Russia boasted of being the first in the world to authorize a coronavirus vaccine, but it has since moved slowly in giving shots to its population. The slack pace of vaccination has been partly attributed to public skepticism about the vaccines amid controversial signals from authorities.

Experts have questioned whether Russia will be able to meet the government target of vaccinating more than 30 million of the country's 146 million people by mid-June, and nearly 69 million by August.

Putin again urged Russians to move quickly to get the shots, and he invited foreigners to Russia to get vaccinated, saying he would instruct the government to facilitate that.

He also emphasized the need to strengthen the international response to climate change, noting that melting permafrost has posed a major challenge to Russia's Arctic regions.

"We have entire cities built on permafrost," he said. "What will happen if it all starts melting?"

Putin said pipes have been laid for the first of two lines of the prospective Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany, leaving only welding to finalize its construction. He said the second line will follow soon.

The U.S. has strongly opposed construction of the Russian pipeline, but the Biden administration opted last month not to punish the German company overseeing the project while announcing new sanctions against Russian companies and ships. The Kremlin has hailed it as a "positive signal" before the Putin-Biden summit.

The Russian leader hailed the project as more economically feasible than an existing pipeline via Ukraine, rejecting Ukrainian and Western criticism that it's designed to rob Kyiv of transit fees.

Putin said Russia will continue pumping via Ukraine 40 billion cubic meters of gas a year in line with an existing five-year contract and could continue doing so after it expires if Ukraine shows "goodwill."

Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a tense tug-of-war following Moscow's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its support for separatist insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

Putin deplored what he described as the U.S. use of the dollar as a political weapon, saying that "its use as an instrument of competition and political struggle has hurt its role as the world reserve currency."

Russia said Thursday it will completely remove the U.S. dollar from its National Wealth Fund and turn the dollar-denominated assets into euros, yuan and gold. Russia long has moved to reduce the dollar's share in its hard currency reserves as it has faced U.S. sanctions amid tensions with Washington and its allies.