Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed a fresh investigative report pointing to involvement by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in the poisoning of Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny and alleged, without evidence, that the Russian opposition leader was working for U.S. intelligence.
Putin, also without providing evidence, said the joint report led by digital sleuth Bellingcat and issued this week was “not an investigation, it’s laundering of U.S. intelligence material.”
Putin made the remark during his highly choreographed, annual end-of-year news conference on December 17.
The event, which lasted four and a half hours, came with Russia’s economy struggling in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and with fresh suspicions of a Russian role in the poisoning of Navalny and a massive cyberattack on the United States that targeted businesses and government agencies and departments.
WATCH: Putin Responds To Navalny Poisoning Investigation With Baseless Claims Of U.S. Involvement
Putin said allegations that the FSB was behind the August poisoning of Navalny in the Siberian city of Tomsk -- multiple foreign labs identified the toxin as a Soviet-era, Russian-made nerve agent known as Novichok -- were the work of unspecified media.
“There have always been such sensationalized stories about Russia in the Western media," Putin told his annual press conference.
"It is not surprising," he said before alleging -- without evidence -- that Navalny was in the pay of “U.S. special services.”
"The [Russian] special services certainly should track him," Putin said. "But that doesn't mean he needs to be poisoned. Who needs him? If they wanted to, they would have finished the job."
Kira Yarmysh, Navalny's spokeswoman, said on Twitter that Putin's suggestion that the opposition leader "should be tracked" represented de facto confirmation that Navalny was being followed by FSB agents at the time of his poisoning.
The 44-year-old Navalny was emergency airlifted to Germany in a coma in August after falling ill during a Russian domestic flight. Laboratory tests in three European countries, confirmed by the global chemical weapons watchdog, established that he was poisoned with a Soviet-style Novichok nerve agent.
Russia, which has brushed off calls for an investigation into the poisoning, denies Russian involvement and says it has yet to be shown any evidence.
Putin and other Russian officials famously resist using Navalny's name in public, mostly alluding to him as "the patient from the Berlin clinic."
Putin's spokesman in October alleged that the lawyer and anti-corruption crusader with a significant opposition following worked for the CIA.
Navalny, who is still in Germany recovering from his poisoning, responded by threatening to sue the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
In the Bellingcat report issued on December 14, the British-based cybersleuthing group, with the help of several media outlets including the Insider, a Russian investigative website, Der Spiegel, and CNN, published the names and photos of the alleged FSB operatives they accused of taking part in the poisoning operation as well as a timeline of events.
Putin's nationally televised news conference is one of a series of high-profile events he uses to burnish his image, reassure Russians that they are in good hands, and send signals to the United States and the rest of the world.
Putin, 68, has dominated politics in Russia for two decades, serving as president or prime minister since 1999. Constitutional changes approved earlier this year open a path for the former KGB officer to stay in power until 2036.
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Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Putin participated remotely from his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, the Kremlin said, while up to about 250 Russian and foreign journalists are on hand at Moscow's International Trade Center.
Regional media joined via video link, and nonjournalists also asked questions -- normally an element of the Direct Line, a Q-and-A session Putin also holds annually.
Earlier, Putin said Russia like other countries faced problems in 2020 linked to COVID-19, but claimed the country, which has the world’s fourth-highest number of confirmed cases, has handled the pandemic better than most.
Putin said he hadn’t taken the Russian COVID-19 vaccine – Sputnik V – but would soon. Russia boasted of being the first nation to approve the vaccine in August after less than two months of human testing, triggering doubts among the international community.
Putin said the locally produced vaccine was safe and effective, but it would take time to develop production capacity.
Putin said Russian gross domestic product would fall 3.6 percent in 2020, a figure he said was lower than the United States and many leading countries in the European Union.
Putin said the country’s financial system was “stable,” and personal incomes were set to rise by 1.5 percent by the end of the year, although Russians might not feel that, and unemployment was up to 6.3 percent .
Putin’s press conference also came amid suspicions that Russia was behind a massive cyberattack on the United States that targeted government agencies, thought to have included the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees border security and defense against hacking.
The cyberattacks, first reported on December 13, were also believed to have affected the U.S. departments of Treasury and Commerce. Parts of the Defense Department were breached, The New York Times reported, while The Washington Post said the State Department and National Institutes of Health were hacked.
Moscow denied the reports, which came as Putin on December 15 congratulated Joe Biden on his victory in the U.S presidential election -- six weeks after the vote but hours after the Electoral College officially affirmed the win by Biden, whom some say will take a harder line with the Kremlin than President Donald Trump.
At his press conference, Putin again denied that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump win, as U.S. intelligence agencies and a special prosecutor have concluded.
"Russian hackers have never helped the current U.S. president to get elected and never meddled in the domestic affairs of this great nation. These are all speculations aimed to spoil relations between Russian and the United States," Putin said.
He added: "We believe the U.S. president-elect [Biden] will sort things out because he has both domestic and foreign policy experience."
Asked about a series of recent media investigations into people close to him, including one of his purported daughters, whose identities he does not publicly confirm, Putin said they looked like Washington's revenge for what it claims was Russian hacking of U.S. elections, something he has repeatedly denied.
"It's revenge and an attempt to influence public opinion in our country to try to interfere in our domestic politics," Putin said.
Putin also called on Washington to extend the New START arms-control treaty that expires in February for one year.
The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) accord, signed in 2010, limits the numbers of strategic nuclear warheads, missiles, and bombers that Russia and the United States can deploy.
The Kremlin said more than 700 journalists from Russia and abroad had been accredited for the marathon press event in Moscow that usually lasts several hours.
Putin faced the press after a new poll by the Levada Center found support for Putin among young Russians had roughly halved in the past year.
Russia’s commodity-dependent economy has been hit this year by a plunge in prices for oil, its main export, and by the impact of the coronavirus, with lockdowns slowing business activity.