MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin denied ordering a hit on political rival Alexei Navalny, but in an exclusive interview with NBC News he did not guarantee that the jailed Kremlin critic, who survived being poisoned with a nerve agent, would get out of prison alive.
“Look, such decisions in this country are not made by the president,” Putin said.
Reminded that Navalny wasn’t just any prisoner, Putin replied: “He will not be treated any worse than anybody else.”
Putin spoke for nearly an hour and a half as Biden met with the leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations, from which Russia was suspended in 2014 after it annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
Relations between the U.S. and Russia are at their worst in decades, badly frayed by a string of cyberattacks linked to Moscow, as well as a long list of old grievances — chief among them being Russia’s meddling in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. elections. On Sunday, Biden said he agreed with Putin’s assessment that U.S.-Russia relations had reached a low point.
Putin said the U.S. allegations that Russian hackers or the government itself were behind cyberattacks in the U.S. were “farcical,” and he challenged NBC News, and by implication the U.S. government, to produce proof that Russians were involved.
“We have been accused of all kinds of things,” he said. “Election interference, cyberattacks and so on and so forth. And not once, not once, not one time, did they bother to produce any kind of evidence or proof. Just unfounded accusations.”
As recently as April, Biden blacklisted six Russian technology companies that provide support to the cyber program run by Putin’s intelligence services, along with dozens of other Russian entities and individuals, for “carrying out Russian government-directed attempts to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and other acts of disinformation and interference.”
Putin also repeated the call for the U.S. and Russia to join forces to fight cybercrime, saying, “It is our great hope that we will be able to set up this process with our U.S. partners.”
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
Throughout the interview, Putin relied on the Kremlin’s time-tested strategy of deflecting criticism by pointing out America’s failures, suggesting that criticism from the West was hypocritical because every country, including Russia and the U.S., acts in its own self-interest.
Asked about Biden’s criticism that Russia had added to global instability, he accused the U.S. of doing the same in Libya, Afghanistan and Syria. And the Russians aren’t cracking down on internal dissent, he said, any more than the U.S. is doing with its laws against foreign agents.
He even pointed to the arrests of hundreds of suspects in the U.S. Capitol riot and the death of one rioter as proof that the U.S. also targets its citizens for their political opinions, just as Russia is accused of stifling dissent. (The FBI has arrested people for the violence inflicted on the seat of government in Washington, rather than for their political opinions.)
“We have a saying: ‘Don’t be mad at the mirror if you are ugly,'” he said. “It has nothing to do with you personally. But if somebody blames us for something, what I say is, why don’t you look at yourselves? You will see yourselves in the mirror, not us.”
Putin showed flashes of defiance when he was asked whether it was a “coincidence” that several other political rivals had been assassinated in recent years.
“We don’t have this kind of habit, of assassinating anybody,” Putin said when he was asked whether he ordered Navalny killed.
Kremlin watchers, however, say Russia’s security services have acted with impunity both in and out of the country.
Biden has said the Kremlin is the biggest threat to America’s security and alliances. He has made it clear that he sees in his first trip abroad as president a chance to rally allies round the cause of liberal democracy against the authoritarian threat of Russia and China.
More than once, Biden has recounted how he told Putin to his face that he doesn’t “have a soul” during a Kremlin visit in 2011 when he was vice president.
“I do not remember this particular part of our conversations,” Putin said when he was asked about the characterization.
Asked what he thought of Biden, Putin said he was a professional and suggested that he could work with him.
“He has spent virtually his entire adulthood in politics,” he said.
Putin had warm words for Trump, who was famously accused of cozying up to him. After their summit in July 2018 in Helsinki, Trump set off shock waves when he refused to side with U.S. intelligence agencies over Putin’s denials of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“Mr. Trump is an extraordinary individual, talented individual. Otherwise he would not have become U.S. president,” Putin said. “He is a colorful individual.”
But he also stressed the need for “predictability and stability” in Russia’s relationship with the U.S., adding, “This is something we haven’t seen in recent years.”
The wide-ranging interview began with Putin flatly denying a Washington Post report that Russia was preparing to offer Iran an advanced satellite system that would enable Tehran to track military targets, including the remaining U.S. troops in Iraq.
“It’s just fake news,” he said. “At the very least, I don’t know anything about this kind of thing. Those who are speaking about it probably know more about it. It’s just nonsense, garbage.”
“I’m surprised that we have not yet been accused of provoking the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said.
Asked what he thought about the Black Lives Matter movement, Putin said, “There are some grounds for it.”
“We have always treated with understanding the fight of African Americans for their rights,” said Putin, who added that he couldn’t approve of any “extreme” behavior on the part of the movement.
Putin is often accused of stifling dissent in Russia by branding serious political opponents and anti-Kremlin parties as “extremist” and using the government-friendly courts to jail rivals like Navalny on trumped-up corruption and other charges.
“You are presenting it as dissent and intolerance towards dissent in Russia,” he said. “We view it completely differently.”
He then segued into the Jan. 6 assault on Congress by a pro-Trump mob bent on stopping the counting of the electoral votes in Biden’s win in the 2020 election. The Senate was evacuated, and then-Vice President Mike Pence and other officials were rushed to safety. Several people were killed, including a Capitol Police officer.
Putin suggested that the 500 or so riot suspects who have been arrested are being subjected to a “persecution for political opinions.”
“Did you order the assassination of the woman who walked into the Congress and who was shot and killed by a policeman?” he said, referring to Ashli Babbitt, one of the rioters. “Do you know that 450 individuals were arrested after entering the Congress? And they didn’t go there to steal a laptop. They came with political demands.”
Babbitt, 35, was an Air Force veteran and ardent Trump supporter. No charges have been filed against the Capitol Police officer who pulled the trigger.
The laptop Putin referred to was taken from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. The FBI has said a suspected rioter planned to sell it to Russian intelligence.
The fate of two Americans imprisoned in Russia, former Marine Trevor Reed and Michigan corporate executive Paul Whelan, will be on the agenda when Biden and Putin meet Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said over the weekend. Putin also suggested that he was open to a possible prisoner swap.
Asked about the imprisoned men, Putin said Reed was a “troublemaker” and a “drunk” who “got himself s**t-faced and started a fight.” Reed is serving a nine-year sentence for hitting a Russian police officer in 2019, a charge the U.S. ambassador to Russia has called “flimsy.”
Whelan, who also once served in the Marines, was convicted last year of spying — a charge he denies — and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Moving on to Belarus, Putin insisted that he had no advance knowledge that the country’s embattled president, Alexander Lukashenko, would capture an opposition journalist by using a ruse to force his plane to make an emergency landing in the capital, Minsk.
He also denied that Russia was planning to end cooperation with the U.S. in space, one of their last remaining areas of common interest, despite threats from his space agency chief to withdraw from the International Space Station project.
“I think you just misunderstood,” Putin said. “We are interested in continuing work with the U.S. in this direction, and we will continue to do so if our U.S. partners don’t refuse to do that.”
And when he was asked about the recent Russian troop movements near the Ukrainian border that have stoked fears of an invasion, Putin said Russia was conducting military exercises in its own territory.
He said NATO routinely conducts military exercises near the Russian border and referred to U.S. military exercises in Alaska, which he said were near Russian territory.
“Imagine if we sent our troops into direct proximity to your borders,” Putin said. “What would have been your response?”
Keir Simmons, Matt Bodner and Tatyana Chistikova reported from Moscow, Yuliya Talmazan and Laura Saravia from London and Corky Siemaszko reported from New York.