Moscow: In a sarcastic outburst, President Vladimir Putin on Thursday scoffed at former FBI director James Comey’s disclosure of his conversations with US President Donald Trump, saying the move has made Comey eligible for political asylum in Russia.
Putin, speaking in a live call-in show with the Russian nation, likened Comey to NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has been living in Russia since being granted asylum in 2013.
“It looks weird when the chief of a security agency records his conversation with the commander-in-chief and then hands it over to media via his friend,” Putin said. “What’s the difference then between the FBI director and Mr. Snowden? In that case he’s more of a rights campaigner defending a certain position than the security agency chief.”
On an acerbic note, he added that if Comey “faces some sort of persecution in connection with that, we are ready to offer political asylum in Russia to him as well.”
The remarks reflected Putin’s annoyance with the congressional and FBI investigations into links between Trump campaign officials and Russia, which have haunted the White House, shattering Moscow’s hopes for improving ties with Washington.
The Russian president reaffirmed his denial of meddling in the US election, saying that Russia has openly expressed its views and hasn’t engaged in any covert activities.
He also attempted to turn the tables on the US, saying it has sought to influence Russian elections by funding NGOs as part of its aspirations for global domination. “Turn a globe and point your finger anywhere, you will find American interests and interference there,” he said.
On a conciliatory note, Putin added that Russia still hopes for normalisation of ties with the US.
He said Moscow and Washington could cooperate in efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and pool efforts to tackle the North Korean nuclear and missile problem.
He said the two countries could also cooperate in dealing with global poverty and efforts to prevent climate change.
Putin also noted that Moscow hopes that the US could play a “constructive role” in helping settle the Ukrainian crisis.
During a tightly choreographed marathon TV show, an annual affair that lasts hours, Putin said that Russia has climbed out of recession despite continuing Western sanctions, adding that the restrictions have forced the country to “switch on our brains” to reduce dependence on energy exports.
He deplored the US Senate’s decision Wednesday to impose new sanctions on Russia as a reflection of Western efforts to “contain” Russia, but insisted that the measures have only made the country stronger.
The Republican-led Senate voted Wednesday to punish Moscow for interfering in the 2016 election by approving a wide-ranging package of sanctions that target key sectors of Russia’s economy and individuals who carried out cyberattacks.
The Senate bill follows up on several rounds of other sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support for pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine.
Putin argued that Russia has done nothing to warrant the Senate’s move, saying it highlights the West’s policy of containing Russia and also reflects domestic infighting in the United States.
“It’s evidence of a continuing internal political struggle in the US,” he said.
Russia has responded to the US and EU sanctions by halting most Western food imports, a move that has helped increase Russian agricultural output.
Russian farmers have pleaded with the Kremlin to keep the import ban even if the West lifts its sanctions, but Putin said that if “our partners lift the sanctions against our economy, we will respond in kind.”
The Russian leader claimed that the “crisis is over,” pointing at modest economic growth over the past nine months, low inflation and rising currency reserves.
Putin said that a slump in oil prices had been a more important factor in Russia’s economic slowdown than the sanctions.
He acknowledged that the Russian economy hasn’t yet shed its dependence on exports of raw materials, but noted that non-energy exports have been growing.
Putin recognised that people’s incomes have fallen and 13.5 per cent of Russians now live below the poverty line, currently equivalent to $170 per month.
Most of the questions during the show were about low salaries, decrepit housing, failing health care and other social problems.
As in the past, Putin chided local officials for failing to provide due care for people and ordered them to quickly fix the flaws.
Even before the show ended, local officials rushed to report that they are looking into the problems.
Putin also offered a glimpse into his closely guarded private life, saying he has two grandchildren whose privacy he wants to respect.
Putin, who in 2013 announced on state television that he was divorcing his wife, has two daughters in their early 30s who haven’t been seen in public for years and became the subject of rumours. One of Putin’s daughters was reported to be in charge of a lucrative project to build a Silicon Valley-like community under the auspices of Moscow State University.
Putin said during the show that both of his daughters live in Moscow and “work in science and education.” He said one of his grandchildren goes to preschool and the other, a boy, has just been born. He said he doesn’t want to give details about his family for fear of hurting their privacy.