Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested that allegations of a Kremlin-sponsored sports-doping program could be part of a U.S. campaign to disrupt next year’s presidential election in Russia, in comments some experts see as a way to rally voters around anti-Americanism.
"There is a strong suspicion that in response to our alleged interference in their election, they want to cause problems for the Russian presidential election,” Putin said on November 9 during a meeting with factory workers in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk.
Putin gave no specific information to support his suggestions or allegations. He provided no evidence that any doping claims were fabricated and no evidence of any link between the Russian presidential election and concerns about doping ahead of the Olympics.
U.S. intelligence agencies have accused the Kremlin of interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the Justice Department and at least two congressional panels are investing the alleged meddling.
Putin has not announced his candidacy but is widely expected to seek and win reelection in the March 2018 Russian vote.
"When is the [Winter] Olympics in Pyeongchang? In February. And when is our presidential election? In March,” the Russian president said.
“There is a very strong suspicion that all of this is being done in order to create a necessary environment for someone -- to stir discontent among sports fans [and] athletes by suggesting that the [Russian] state has somehow been part of the implied [doping] violations and thus has to bear responsibility."
Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL that Putin's comments are likely an effort to stir up anti-American sentiment to motivate Russian voters ahead of the presidential election.
"The claims are ridiculous, but Russia is convinced that the United States has long tried to meddle in the region and that any protests in Eurasia, whether in Russia, Armenia, Ukraine have American hands behind it," he said.
"What sells in a Russian election is anti-Americanism," he added. "Putin -- if he announces [his candidacy], and it's surprising he hasn't already -- will get elected. Even though they have disqualified one potential opponent (opposition leader Aleksei Navalny) he has a competitor (TV personality Ksenia Sobchak). She may be a Kremlin plant, but she will get some votes.
Putin’s likely strategy, he said, is to motivate the base and "rally the country" with the idea that Russia is under siege and is the victim.
"They've used the doping issue before, saying others do it and that there is a double-standard against Russia," Stronski said.
In July 2016, an independent report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) concluded that more than 1,000 Russians benefited from the doping program across 30 sports and found evidence of state-sponsored doping in Russia.
The IOC did not follow a WADA recommendation for all Russian athletes to be barred from the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, instead leaving decisions on whether Russians could compete to individual sporting federations.
The IOC is yet to decide on any sanctions, but it is investigating the allegations and has banned six cross-country skiers for life from the Olympics over doping violations at Sochi, including four who were barred on November 9.
The committee has said its board will make a decision on December 5-7 about Russia’s participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea in February.
In September, at least 17 national anti-doping organizations (NADOs) called for Russia to be banned from the Olympics in Pyeongchang.
The group said Russia must be punished for “proven corruption of the Sochi Olympic Games and continuing failure in its obligations to clean sport."
NADO leaders also said the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) "refusal to hold Russia accountable for one of the biggest scandals in sports history... imperils clean athletes and the future of the Olympic movement."
The NADOs are from Austria, Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, the United States, plus the Institute of National Anti-Doping Organizations.
Putin denied Russia has ever had a state-sponsored doping scheme, although he acknowledged “certain instances” of doping have taken place, “just like in other countries."
He claimed there “are big suspicions that all this is being done to create for someone the necessary conditions for discontent among sport lovers, athletes."
The Colorado-based U.S. Anti-Doping Agency declined to comment on Putin’s remark.
Putin added that “the controlling stake” in international sports organizations is with sponsors and broadcasters in the United States.
A spokeswoman for WADA told RFE/RL that the agency "stands firmly by the outcomes" of independent investigations that exposed widespread doping in Russia and that it has been working with the country to bring it back to compliance.
On November 8, Russian authorities said they would seek the extradition of Russian whistle-blower Grigory Rodchenkov, who helped orchestrate the country's state-sponsored Olympic doping program and has since fled to the United States.
In May 2016, he described in an interview to The New York Times an elaborate doping scheme that he said involved dozens of Russian athletes at the Sochi Olympics.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Mark Najarian in Washington, Reuters, TASS, and AFP