— -- At his annual end-of-year press conference, a marathon session where he takes questions for hours, Russian president Vladimir Putin again dismissed suspicions of possible collusion between Russia and members of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, saying they were “invented” by Trump’s opponents.
“This is all invented by people who oppose Trump to give his work an illegitimate character,” Putin said, answering a question from ABC News’ Terry Moran.
Russia will hold presidential elections next March and this year Putin used the event to broadcast his own achievements while heading off the battered opposition who have been permitted to run against him.
The event is heavily stage-managed, with the Kremlin loosely arranging the order of questioning. Although Russia's handful of independent media outlets are allowed to ask questions, Putin usually moves swiftly over them. Follow up questions are not allowed, meaning Putin has little difficulty avoiding being pinned down.
During this year's event, more than 1600 journalists were present, asking questions on subjects ranging from nuclear arms treaties with the United States to the problems of local fish production.
On Donald Trump
Asked how he would explain the unusually large number of Russians linked to his government being in contact with Trump’s campaign, Putin said there was nothing odd about it.
"Should we ban all contacts?" Putin asked. Bringing up the example of meetings by Russia’s then ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, with Trump advisors during the campaign, Putin asked, "What do you find egregious in that? Why does it all have to take on some tint of spymania?,” said Putin.
Putin also praised Trump, crediting him with some “major achievements” in his relatively short time in office. “Look at the market!” Putin said, referring to the stock market highs that have accompanied Trump's time in office. “This speaks to investors’ trust in the American economy.”
Putin went on that he believed there were things that Trump had not yet done that he would have wished, such as U.S. healthcare, but also improving relations with Russia. But he added: "It's already obvious that even if he would like to do that, he's not in a state to do that because of the well-known limits," seeming to refer to the uproar around Trump's relationship to Russia.
"I don't know if he still has such a wish or if it's entirely exhausted-- I hope there is," Putin said, adding he believes in the end the two countries "will normalize our relations and develop and overcome common threats."
On Olympic Doping
A week after Russia was banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics over systematic efforts to conceal doping by its athletes, Putin attacked the key whistle-blower who revealed the scheme, suggesting the man had given false evidence on the orders of the American intelligence services.
Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory who has claimed to have helped Russia's sports ministry cover up hundreds of positive tests, provided the key evidence to enquiries by international sporting bodies that eventually led to Russia’s banning from the Olympics. Rodchenkov is now in hiding in the U.S. under government protection.
Russia has never accepted the allegations that the doping cover up was state-sponsored, and Putin suggested the claims were the invention of U.S. intelligence.
"He is under the control and the protection of the FBI. That means he is working under the control of the American secret services," Putin said. "What are they doing with him there? What drugs do they give him, so that he says what’s needed?”
The Russian president added that he believed the doping allegations were being “ramped up” to weaken him in next year's presidential elections. Putin seemed to imply that Rodchenkov might even have been an American spy while carrying out the doping scheme.
“What’s strange for me, as a person who worked for a long time in the security service: he brought all this crap from North America —- from the U.S. and Canada. How did they let him through customs with such tough controls? Of course, certain thoughts arise on this account."
On his opponents
Putin formally announced he would run in March’s presidential elections last week. With Russia’s opposition marginalized and the media dominated by the Kremlin, he is expected to win without difficulty.
At the press conference he dismissed the country's opposition, or the few opponents who have been allowed to run against him, as immature and dangerous.
“It’s not my job to nurture competitors," Putin said, adding that he also wonders why the political opposition remains small. Russia’s opposition are subjected to almost constant pressure from authorities, with their rallies regularly broken up by police and activists arrested.
Putin's most popular opponent, the anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, who has led large protests around Russia, is barred from running in the elections by a fraud conviction that he says is politically-motivated.
Putin, as he often does, avoided mentioning Navalny's name, simply criticizing those "who make noise on the public square" without offering anything "constructive."
Navalny during the press conference posted a link on Twitter to his presidential campaign's political program, saying Putin must be "trying hard" to miss it.
With the opposition largely excluded from Russian state media, the event saw what might be the closest Russia gets to a presidential debate. Ksenia Sobchak, a former socialite turned celebrity journalist and the daughter of Putin's political mentor is likely to be his most high profile opponent in the election. From the audience, where she waved a red sign with her name on it, she asked Putin whether he feared competition, saying that being opposition figure in Russia was to face “being killed or jailed.” She also referred to Navalny, who has been imprisoned repeatedly for protesting.
“I promise you, the authorities haven’t been afraid of anyone and don’t fear anyone,” Putin retorted to Sobchak. He dismissed her as not offering a constructive program and suggesting she wanted to open the door to the chaos of the 1990s. “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. We’ve already gone though all that. Do you want to go back to that?”
Putin said that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent statement that the U.S. is ready to negotiate with North Korea without pre-conditions was a “very good signal” and that Russia would cooperate in that direction.
But Putin heavily criticised the U.S. over its broader approach to North Korea, saying it had “provoked” the North Koreans into exiting previous negotiations and agreements. He also mocked the U.S. Congress.
"Have you noticed your Congressmen? They look great, suits, ties. Like smart guys," Putin said. "But they put us in one line with North Korea and Iran, while pushing president Trump to persuade us to help solve the problem. Are you guys normal over there at all?"
Nuclear arms race
Putin accused the U.S. of unilaterally withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF), a crucial arms control agreement that helped significantly reduce tensions between Russia and the U.S. at the end of the Cold War and that recently both sides had suggested is under threat.
The U.S. has accused Russia of violating the INF treaty by deploying a new ground-based cruise missile. Russia denies it is in violation and argues the U.S. has already breached the treaty by setting up an anti-missile system in Europe, something the U.S. also disputes.
"In fact and in essence, the process has started," Putin said of the possible unilateral withdrawal by the U.S. "If the things go the same way, there is nothing good about it."
He added that Russia would not withdraw from the treaty.