The Russian president, speaking at his annual, hours-long news conference, claimed that US intelligence was behind the uproar over the attempted poisoning
Moscow: President Vladimir Putin of Russia denied Thursday that he was behind the near-deadly poisoning of his most prominent political opponent, telling journalists with a laugh that if Russian agents had wanted to kill Alexei Navalny, “they would have probably finished the job.”
But Putin also made a startling admission: He confirmed that Russian intelligence agents had been tracking Navalny’s movements across the country.
Navalny, a 44-year-old Opposition leader with an online audience of millions, was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in Siberia in August. He fell ill on a commercial flight and survived thanks to the pilot’s emergency landing and the ambulance crew that met him on the airport tarmac.
Putin, speaking at his annual, hours-long news conference, insisted that US intelligence was behind the uproar over the attempted poisoning. He said an investigation by an international group of journalists published Monday that uncovered apparent involvement by Russian intelligence had also been engineered by the United States.
“This patient in the Berlin clinic has the support of American intelligence agencies,” Putin said, referring to Navalny while pointedly refusing to say his name. Navalny was flown to Germany after the poisoning, where he has remained while recovering. “The intelligence agencies of course need to keep an eye on him. 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.”
Putin’s comments at one of his most high-profile television events of the year showed how mounting evidence that the Russian state had tried to assassinate Navalny was putting the Kremlin on the defensive, in full view of the Russian public. They also showed that Putin was resorting to a tried-and-true method of deflecting blame: When in doubt, it’s the Americans’ fault.
“The proof is so ironclad that it’s impossible to argue with them,” Navalny said in a post on Facebook about Putin’s comments. “We are now in the zone of a confession.”
German military scientists determined in September that Navalny had been poisoned with one of the Russian-made Novichok family of nerve agents. Those results were confirmed by labs in France and Sweden as well as by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a global watchdog.
The investigation by the journalists of Bellingcat, a research group that specializes in open-source investigations, used leaked telecommunications data to show that officers from a Russian spy unit with expertise in poisons had trailed Navalny for years and were nearby when he was poisoned. By Thursday, a YouTube video by Navalny describing the investigation had drawn more than 13 million views.
“This is not an investigation; this is the legalisation of material from American intelligence agencies,” Putin said. “What, do we not know that they track location? Our intelligence agencies understand that well.”
Voluminous databases of private information, including cellphone records, are widely available on the black market in Russia. Bellingcat has said that such records — as opposed to data from intelligence agencies — allowed its reporters to track the movements of Russian spies.
“A few hundred euros could — and do — provide you with months of phone call data for an FSB or GRU officer, allowing investigators to trace the intelligence services’ operations, identify the colleagues of research targets, and follow the physical tracks of spies across Russia and abroad,” Bellingcat said in an article about the methodology of its Navalny investigation.
Russia has consistently denied any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning, at one point alleging that he could have been poisoned in Germany. On Thursday, Putin suggested the attack could have been an elaborate ruse to increase Navalny’s prominence.
“The trick is to attack a leading figure,” Putin said. “It is well known that this trick of political battle is used around the world.”
The marathon news conference — this one lasted four-and-a-half hours — is a long-time tradition for Putin, a way for the Kremlin to put his stamina, his accountability and his authority on display. The event typically has a circuslike atmosphere, with journalists from across the country packing a Moscow conference hall in their region’s traditional dress or with colourful signs in the hope of drawing the president’s attention.
This time around, because of the pandemic, journalists asked questions by video link from conference rooms across the vast country, as far east as the port city of Vladivostok, more than 5,500 miles away on the Pacific. Putin spoke remotely from a studio at his residence outside Moscow, in keeping with his practice since the start of the pandemic of avoiding virtually all physical contact with others.
The few journalists who got to be in the same room as Putin during the news conference all spent two weeks in quarantine in a Kremlin-run hotel, under the watch of Russia’s version of the Secret Service. They were barred from leaving their rooms without an agent’s permission and received their food in single-use containers placed on a chair outside their door, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.
The questions, as always, alternated between geopolitics and local matters such as the water supply in Crimea. A 10-year-old boy asked why other countries did not like Russia, even though “we don’t do them any harm.” Sergei Shnurov, a rock star turned journalist, asked Putin why Russian hackers did not help President Donald Trump win this year’s US election and whether Putin planned to offer Trump a job in Russia.
“I don’t think Trump needs any help finding employment,” Putin said. “He has quite a large base of support inside the United States, and as far as I understand he does not plan to depart from the political life of his country.”
American officials said in recent days that the State Department and parts of the Pentagon were among the government entities compromised by a sophisticated Russian hack, but Putin did not comment on the matter. Instead, he said Russian-American relations had become “hostage to domestic politics” in the United States, referring to Democrats’ criticism of Trump as being too soft on Russia.
“We expect that the new president-elect of the United States will understand what is going on,” Putin went on, referring to Joe Biden. “He is an experienced man, both in domestic politics and in foreign policy, and we expect that all the problems that have arisen — if not all, then at least some — will be solved by the new administration.”
Questions throughout the news conference focused on the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed 49,151 people in Russia, according to official statistics that are widely viewed as understating the toll. Putin, echoing a common refrain of Russian officials and the state media, acknowledged that Russia was hit hard but insisted that things were even worse elsewhere. He floated the possibility that the government could give members of the public just one dose of Russia’s main coronavirus vaccine, instead of two, to get the vaccine quickly to more people.
“One possibility is to create a ‘light’ version of the vaccine,” Putin told reporters after the news conference. “It would be shorter-lasting; the level of protection would be smaller — but still up to 85 percent — but we would be able to produce tens of millions right away.”
The country is now in the midst of its fiercest wave of the coronavirus so far, recording more than 500 deaths a day. Vaccination is proceeding slower than expected, hobbled both by production problems and mistrust. And the medical system is still struggling to cope, a fact that journalists and regular Russians who submitted their own questions online asked the Russian leader to address.
“People are calling me from the regions and saying that it is very hard to live right now, horribly hard, harder than it’s ever been in Russia,” a journalist from the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid told Putin.
Anton Troianovski c.2020 The New York Times Company
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