Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks via video connection during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 17, 2020. This year, Putin held his annual news conference online due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks via video connection during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 17, 2020. This year, Putin held his annual news conference online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed an international media investigation that alleges his government was behind the poisoning of a leading Kremlin critic last August— maintaining that opposition politician Alexey Navalny was working in tandem with the United States as part of a “trick” to tarnish Russia’s image. 

"This is not an investigation, this is the legalization of material from American intelligence agencies,” said Putin, referring to the case.

The report—released this week by the online investigative group Bellingcat in conjunction with Russia’s The Insider, Der Spiegel and CNN—provided cell phone and travel records indicating agents from Russia’s Federal Security Services were routinely tracking Navalny up until he fell ill while traveling aboard a plane from Siberia to Moscow.

Putin acknowledged his government’s surveillance of Navalny, albeit with a twist: the Russian leader alleged the opposition leader was working directly with American intelligence, leaving the FSB no choice. 

"The intelligence agencies of course need to keep an eye on him,” said Putin. “But that does not mean that he needs to be poisoned—who needs him? If they had really wanted to, they would have probably finished the job.”

Russia has refused to open an investigation into the attack — arguing Western countries have failed to provide evidence Navalny was poisoned with a Russian-made nerve agent.

Responding on Twitter from Berlin, where he continues to recover, Navalny said the president’s deflections amounted to a confession of sorts.

“Putin admitted it all, in his own way” by blaming the CIA, wrote Navalny. “He understood that it’s impossible to deny our ironclad proof.”

“In other words, yes. The FSB followed me everywhere for four years but didn’t poison me. Because ‘if they’d wanted to, it would have worked out,’ ” added Navalny.

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Relationship challenges

Putin’s comments came amid his annual year-end press conference—a semi-choreographed event that combined questions from journalists and Russian citizens on issues ranging from the coronavirus and Russia’s struggling economy to international affairs.

The Russian leader repeatedly touched on the state of U.S.-Russian relations.

Putin said he hoped the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden would provide an opportunity for improved ties with Washington.

“He’s an experienced man,” Putin said of Biden.

“We expect that all the problems that have arisen—if not all, then at least some—will be solved by the new administration.”

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Putin again dismissed allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election—arguing the charges were efforts by Washington to “delegitimize” President Donald Trump.

“And in this way, U.S.-Russian relations are all hostage to American domestic affairs,” added Putin.

The Russian leader also accused the United States of seeking an arms race—even as he called for an automatic one-year extension of the new START nuclear arms treaty.

The agreement is set to expire in February and President-elect Biden has signaled he, too, is eager to salvage the agreement.

Putin said the U.S. was working with Western allies to contain and weaken Russia at all costs.

“We heard your promises that NATO would not be expanded to the east [of Europe]. But NATO keeps expanding,” said Putin in addressing a question from the BBC about whether he bore any responsibility for the poor state of Russia-West relations.

“You’re smart people,” he added. “So why do you think that we’re fools?”

Russia’s coronavirus response

Putin’s press conference was scaled back this year due to the coronavirus — with a smattering of journalists in masks and gloves allowed to attend the event with Putin in Moscow while other gatherings were beamed in via online video feed from across the country.

Putin spent much of the session fielding questions about his government’s response to the coronavirus, which has killed nearly 50,000 Russians, according to official statistics.

While independent analysts argue the true figures likely are much higher, Putin argued that Russia had fared better than most in fending off a “sea of problems” caused by the virus.

“I can say confidently that we met these problems worthily, perhaps even better than in other countries,” he said.

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This week Russia began a national rollout of its Sputnik V vaccine, which Putin has touted as a Russian victory in the global race for immunity against the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.

Despite such fanfare, the government has run into problems with public skepticism over the vaccine’s efficacy and problems with scaling up production.

Putin said that he, too, was waiting for his turn to get the vaccine.

“I’m quite law-abiding. I’ll listen to the recommendations of the specialists,” said Putin. “I will definitely do this as soon as it becomes possible.”