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Vladimir Putin Urges Better US-Russia Ties, Then Vilifies West

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends his annual end-of-year news conference, held online in a video conference mode, at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia December 17, 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends his annual end-of-year news conference, held online in a video conference mode, at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia December 17, 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

Speaking at his annual marathon end-of-year press conference, Putin began by striking a conciliatory tone towards Western countries, with which Russia has seen its relations in recent years reach its lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday expressed hope that incoming US President Joe Biden would present an opportunity for improved relations between their two countries, before attacking Western aggression towards Russia.

Speaking at his annual marathon end-of-year press conference, Putin began by striking a conciliatory tone towards Western countries, with which Russia has seen its relations in recent years reach its lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

He told reporters that US-Russia ties had become "hostage to US domestic politics and said he hoped that some existing problems "will be resolved under the new administration".

"We believe the US president-elect will sort things out because he has both domestic and foreign policy experience," Putin said.

Despite being one of the last leaders of major world countries to congratulate the US president-elect, Putin earlier this week said he was ready for collaboration with Biden.

But tensions have grown between Russia and the West in recent weeks after the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

Navalny, 44, fell violently ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow in August and was eventually transferred by medical aircraft to a hospital in Berlin.

Experts in several Western countries concluded that the opposition leader had been poisoned by the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok -- a claim that Russia has repeatedly denied.

This week a joint media report revealed what it said were the names and photos of chemical weapons experts from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) that had tailed Navalny for years.

When the topic came up during Thursday's press conference, Putin's tone cooled.

He suggested that US special services had planted the report, led by the investigative website Bellingcat and published with CNN, Der Spiegel and Russian outlet The Insider.

He also said that Navalny was supported by US special services.

'Warm and cuddly'

In response to the poisoning, the European Union has imposed entry bans and frozen the bank accounts of six people suspected of being responsible, including FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov.

The sanctions were the latest in a series that Western countries have slapped on Russia since it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Tensions rose significantly two years later when Russia accused of meddling in the US presidential vote to help elect Trump.

On Thursday Putin once again denied the accusations and said that it was the West that meddles in elections "all over the world" and "will try to interfere" in Russia's parliamentary elections next year.

Later during the press conference a Western journalist asked Putin if he took any responsibility for the rising tensions or whether Russia was "warm and cuddly".

"Compared to you, yes we are warm and cuddly," Putin replied, remarking that Russia had "freed" a host of countries by dissolving the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Russian leader then said the West had violated its "assurances that NATO will not expand eastward" in the years since.

"Who is warm and cuddly and who is aggressive? It's not us who are aggressive," Putin said.

And if Russia could not be described as "cuddly", he added, then it could at least be described as "very benign, inclined to carrying on a dialogue and seeking compromise solutions".

But Putin nonetheless concluded on a civil note, quoting a famous Soviet cartoon character, Leopold the Cat: "Let's live in peace!"

first published:December 17, 2020, 22:30 IST