Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual marathon year-end press conference Thursday, fielding questions for just over four and a half hours.
In one of the livelier exchanges, he disputed reports of his government’s culpability in the attempted poisoning murder of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, sarcastically claiming that if his covert agents had been dispatched to kill Navalny, “they would have finished it.”
Putin was responding to a question about an investigative report CNN published Tuesday that concluded a unit of the Russian FSB security service, the successor to the infamous KGB, had been spying on Navalny and his staffers for some time before the attempt on his life in August. The investigative report identified these FSB agents and noted one of them is a specialist in “toxins and nerve agents.”
The German doctors who treated Navalny after he was airlifted to Berlin confirmed he was poisoned with Novichok, a Russian nerve agent also used in the attempted assassination of former spy Sergei Skripal in 2018.
Putin avoided using Navalny’s name, instead referring to him as “the patient in the Berlin clinic.” After claiming Russian agents would have done a better job of killing Navalny, and making much of the fact that he allowed Navalny to be taken to Germany for treatment, he bizarrely insisted the United States was the party that attempted to poison Skripal.
CNN noted that in the course of mocking its report, Putin “essentially confirmed that FSB agents did indeed trail Navalny.”
Putin snapped at a BBC journalist that Russia is “more white and fluffy than you,” meaning the Russian government is morally superior to those of the United Kingdom and United States. He then rattled off a list of the West’s purported “crimes,” including the expansion of NATO in defiance of promises made in the last days of the Soviet Union.
In response to another question, Putin continued his insistence that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“Russian hackers did not help the current president of the United States to be elected and did not interfere in the internal affairs of this great power. This is all speculation, this is all a reason to spoil relations between Russia and the United States. This is a reason not to recognize the legitimacy of the current president of the United States of America for domestic political American reasons,” he said.
In turn, Putin accused the U.S. of meddling in Russian politics by supposedly arranging a Russian media expose of his family’s financial dealings.
“That’s the State Department and U.S. security services. They are the real authors. Anyway, this has clearly been done on their orders. This is absolutely obvious,” he said. “The goal is revenge and attempts to influence public opinion in our country in order to interfere in our domestic life.”
Putin complained about the United States supposedly increasing tensions and provoking Russia by pulling out of arms treaties, forgetting to mention America’s allegations that Russia cheated on the agreements.
“It wasn’t us who pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. It wasn’t us who pulled out of the Open Skies treaty. What, do you think we’re idiots or something?” he said.
Putin later said he wanted to extend another arms treaty, New START, but he expected it would lapse in February. He accused the U.S. of starting a new arms race by pulling out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
The Russian president blamed the West for misunderstanding or misrepresenting all of his provocative actions, defending his annexation of Crimea as fulfilling the wishes of the Crimean people and denouncing a “lack of political courage” in the Ukrainian political class for continuing clashes with Russia-supported separatists in the Donbass region.
“Officials in Kyiv have stated publicly that they are not going to follow through on the Minsk agreement, which is backed by international law,” he said, referring to a plan for resolving hostilities in Ukraine in 2015.
“Russia plans to increase its support in Donbass,” he added.
Putin said he hoped relations with the U.S. would improve under the Biden administration.
“We presume that the newly elected U.S. president will understand what is going on — he is a person, who has experience in both domestic and foreign policy. We expect that all problems, which emerged, or at least some of them will be ironed out under the new administration,” he said.
Many of the questions asked at the virtual press conference concerned the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s response to it.
“Compared to the rest of the world, our healthcare system turned out to be more effective,” Putin said, an assertion that would be disputed by most global health experts, and for that matter many of the Russian people, given his plunging approval ratings.
Putin touted Russia’s coronavirus vaccine project, although he complained that “we’re lacking the equipment and hardware to produce the necessary number of vaccines.”
“We have a good vaccine, both safe and effective — over 95 percent and higher — and specialists say its level of protection reaches 96-97 percent,” he said.
He said that he himself has not taken the Sputnik V vaccine yet, citing concerns about side effects for patients his age.
“I’m quite law-abiding. I’ll listen to the recommendations of specialists, so I’ve not done it yet. But I will definitely do it as soon as it’s possible. I see no reason not to get vaccinated,” he said.