Putin rejects claims of Russian interference in U.S. election

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File photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin by Alexei Nikolskyi/Sputnik/Kremlin via Reuters

File photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin by Alexei Nikolskyi/Sputnik/Kremlin via Reuters

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin on Thursday dismissed claims that Russia is interfering in the U.S. presidential election, saying the allegations are designed to distract the public from real issues.

The United States has accused Russia of coordinating the hacks of Hillary Clinton’s campaign emails to influence the outcome of the election.

Speaking to international foreign policy experts in Sochi, Putin dismissed “the hysteria about Russia’s influence on the U.S. presidential election.”

He argued that U.S. elites have used the “mythical and fictitious” issue to distract attention from real problems such as government debt and police violence.

“Does anyone seriously think Russia can somehow influence the American people’s choice?” Putin said. “Is America some kind of banana republic? America is a great power!”

He called the claim that Russia favors Donald Trump in the race as “sheer nonsense” that has served as a campaign tool.

Putin added that it’s not clear what stance the next U.S. president will take toward Russia, but added that Moscow welcomes campaign statements about normalizing ties.

“We will work with any president who will be elected by the American people,” he said.

Putin also asserted that the rise of popularity of nationalist parties in Europe was rooted in a widening gap between elites and the regular citizens, not the influence of Russian propaganda as many in the West have suggested.

“Of course, it’s quite pleasant and sometimes advantageous to cast oneself as a defender of civilization from some kind of new barbarians, but Russia has no intention to attack anyone.” — Russian President Vladimir Putin

“I would like to have such propaganda machine in Russia, but, regrettably, there is no such thing,” Putin said with a note of sarcasm. “We don’t have such global media as CNN, BBC and others.”

He also shrugged off allegations that Russia harbors aggressive military intentions in Europe.

“Of course, it’s quite pleasant and sometimes advantageous to cast oneself as a defender of civilization from some kind of new barbarians, but Russia has no intention to attack anyone,” Putin said. “It’s plain ridiculous.”

Russia-West relations have plummeted to their lowest point since the Cold War era amid the Ukrainian crisis and differences over the war in Syria.

The U.S. and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Russia in response to its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for a pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

The U.S. and its NATO allies have deployed their forces in the Baltics and Poland in response to Russia’s moves. Moscow has described the deployments as a threat to its security and pledged to respond in kind.

Amid the tensions, NATO complained that Russian warplanes fly with the transponders that would allow them to be identified switched off, jeopardizing civilian flights.

Putin said Thursday that he backed a Finnish proposal for both Russian and NATO aircraft to have their transponders switched on while flying over the Baltics, but added that the alliance turned it down earlier this year.

Putin defended Russia’s support for the Syrian army’s siege of the rebel-held eastern districts of the city of Aleppo, saying it’s necessary to crush the militants there.

Putin said there is choice between “keeping a terrorist nest there or crushing that nest while minimizing civilian casualties.” He shrugged off the calls to end the onslaught on Aleppo, arguing that the U.S.-backed, Iraqi-led siege of Mosul should also be halted then, and the prospective attack on Raqqa by the U.S.-led coalition should not be launched at all.

He voiced regret about a quick collapse last month of a cease-fire in Syria brokered by Russia and the U.S. and blamed unidentified forces in Washington for wrecking it.

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