MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin used his traditional year-end marathon press briefing Thursday to send a direct message of support to President Trump in Washington’s impeachment saga, which he said was launched by embittered Democratic Party lawmakers on “dreamed-up” grounds.
“The party that lost the [2016 American presidential] election is continuing the fight by other means,” Mr. Putin, 67, told reporters during a characteristically wide-ranging review of the year past and preview of the year to come.
Mr. Putin, whose relations with Mr. Trump have been a source of enduring fascination, sided with Washington pundits who predict Mr. Trump has little worry of being convicted and removed from office by the Republican-led Senate. Russia’s role in the 2016 election, and fears it could interfere with the 2020 vote, will likely be a major topic of conversation in the looming impeachment trial.
“It’s unlikely they will want to remove from power a representative of their party based on what are, in my opinion, completely dreamed-up reasons,” Mr. Putin said.
Mr. Putin said Democratic lawmakers had “invented” allegations that Mr. Trump tried to pressure Ukraine into opening an inquiry into former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, his possible rival for next year’s presidential election, and his son Hunter by withholding millions of dollars of congressionally approved military aid. The aid, not coincidentally was sought by Kyiv to better stand up to Mr. Putin and pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Putin dismissed the impeachment drive as a continuation of political “infighting” in the U.S. that included what he portrayed as groundless allegations that Mr. Trump colluded with Russia ahead of the 2016 presidential vote.
Some Russian government officials and pro-Kremlin media openly rooted for Mr. Trump ahead of the 2016 presidential polls. However, enthusiasm for Mr. Trump has faded in Moscow amid U.S. economic sanctions against Russia and differences with Washington over everything from Syria to Ukraine.
“Everyone accused Trump of being soft on Russia or of being Putin’s agent, but three years after he came to power relations between Russia and the U.S. are catastrophic,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of Russia’s Council of Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin.
Packed house, long program
Thursday’s televised press conference, the 15th such event since Mr. Putin came to power in 2000, lasted four hours and 18 minutes and was attended by almost 1,900 Russian and foreign journalists. In keeping with previous press conferences, Mr. Putin fielded a variety of questions, including international security and economic issues.
Mr. Putin insisted again that Russia was ready to extend the last remaining nuclear treaty between Moscow and Washington, but that the White House had not replied to the Kremlin’s proposals.
The New START treaty, signed in 2010, places restrictions on the number of strategic nuclear warheads that Moscow and Washington can deploy. The U.S. in August pulled out of a Cold War-era deal that barred missiles with ranges up to 3,400 miles, citing violations by Russia that the Kremlin denies.
“If there is no START, there will be nothing in the world that will contain an arms race and that I think is bad,” Mr. Putin said Thursday.
The Russian leader also tried to clarify another major relationship, saying that ties with China was strengthening by the day but that there were no plans to create a military alliance between the two.
“Our relations with China continue to develop, including in the sphere of defense technologies,” he noted. “I think China is capable of producing its own ballistic missile early warning system, but with our help it can do so sooner.”
There has been mounting speculation that Mr. Putin, who will mark two decades as Russia’s de facto leader on Dec. 31, will attempt to stay in power when his final presidential term expires in 2024. Under Russia’s post-Soviet constitution, presidents are barred from holding more than two “consecutive” terms of office.
Mr. Putin shifted to the role of prime minister from 2008-2012 after serving two four-year terms between 2000 and 2008. Dmitri Medvedev, his political ally, served a single presidential term before stepping down to allow Mr. Putin to return to the Kremlin in a move that was met by huge opposition protests in Moscow.
Some analysts have suggested that Mr. Putin could rewrite the constitution or return to power as the leader of a “Union State” with neighboring Belarus in order to prolong his rule.
Mr. Putin said on Thursday, however, that he would be in favor of the removal of the word “consecutive” from the constitution, meaning that neither he, nor any successor would be able to serve more than two terms as president. Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT, the state-funded news channel, said the comment was proof that the former KGB officer would leave the Kremlin in 2024.
Mr. Putin also had words of praise for reelected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose Conservative Party last week achieved a crushing election victory that was welcomed by supporters of Britain’s exit from the European Union. “[He] better grasped the mood in British society than his opponents,” Mr. Putin said.
For the first time ever, journalists were asked not to bring large signs that they have traditionally used to attract the attention of Mr. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who oversees the press conference. Some regional Russian journalists got inventive in trying to get noticed: Anna Sunitsa, a journalist from the Raduga television station near Moscow, brought a specially made shawl featuring Mr. Putin’s smiling face, while another journalist wore a high-visibility vest to draw attention to her query about public transport.
As in the past, the questions ranged across a wide spectrum, with Mr. Putin commenting on a variety of topics, including the recent ban on Russian athletes accused of doping and the likelihood that a woman will become president of Russia.
Mr. Putin was clearly annoyed by the four-year ban on Russian athletes competing under the national flag in international events such as the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup, noting that many of those being punished were not accused of any wrongdoing.
“The overwhelming majority of our athletes are clean, and then why must all of them suffer?” he said. “Our figure skaters are just little girls who are able to do things on the ice that nobody, almost nobody, can do.”
He had harsh words for the economic and ethnic policies of Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin, but said he would not advocate removing Lenin’s embalmed body from its tomb in Red Square.
“It is too early to talk about [its possible removal] as there are so many people in our country for whom his name remains important,” he said.
While most of the questions are carefully screened, a journalist from the BBC’s Russian service caused a stir by asking why Mr. Putin refuses to openly acknowledge his daughters, Maria, 34 and Katerina, 33.
Katerina Tikhonova, widely thought to be Mr. Putin’s daughter, has been featured on state television in recent years in her role as head of a billion-dollar high-tech development project. State media has never confirmed, however, that she is related to Russia’s longtime leader.
“When will you admit that they are your children? And when will they become public and open for society, like the children of other world leaders?” asked journalist Farida Rustamova.
Mr. Putin dodged the question.
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