Vladimir Putin blasted both Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s tactics on the campaign trail but refused to publicly take sides in a U.S. presidential race in which he’s been accused of secretly favoring the New York real estate billionaire.
“They’re both using shock tactics, just each in their own way,” the Russian president said in an interview. “I don’t think they are setting the best example,” he added.
Putin, who has won praise and a pledge to improve ties from Trump while facing attacks from Clinton, stuck repeatedly to his position that he has no preferred candidate and would work with whoever wins. While his purported predilections have been the subject of bitter invective from both sides, in public at least, Putin didn’t show much enthusiasm for either one.
Allegations of Kremlin interference have roiled the already contentious race in the wake of charges by U.S. officials that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. The resulting release of internal party documents prompted several senior party officials to resign and shook the Clinton campaign over the summer. The Federal Bureau of Investigation also is investigating cyber attacks on at least two state election boards that private security researchers suspect are linked to Russian criminal gangs.
The FBI said this week it “takes very seriously” the possibility that a foreign power could be trying to influence the vote, without naming any suspects. Those warnings came after each campaign has accused the other of inappropriate ties to Russians, including Putin himself as well as oligarchs and state companies.
In the interview, Putin denounced what he called playing “the anti-Russian card” by the candidates as “shortsighted.” He denied that his government was involved in hacking, sarcastically dismissing the DNC revelations as uninteresting, but said the breaches could be impossible to trace.
Speaking for two hours in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok on the eve of an economic forum and meetings of leaders from the Group of 20, Putin covered topics from the chance for a deal with other oil producers to boost prices, to Russian privatization plans and hopes for a breakthrough on closer ties with Japan.
Facing criticism from U.S. and other foreign leaders that his Kremlin-centered political system is authoritarian, Putin has repeatedly tarred the U.S. electoral process as undemocratic. In June, he cited as an example the fact that candidates have won the presidency even though they lost the popular vote.
Russian political campaigns have become relatively staid affairs since Putin came to power in 2000. In his last run, in 2012, he declined to debate his opponents, at least one of whom had said just days before he announced his own bid that he thought Putin was actually the best candidate. Even with the country mired in the longest recession in two decades, Putin’s ruling party is expected to win a majority of seats in parliamentary elections on Sep. 18.
Beyond bemoaning the candidates’ use of Russia in their attacks, Putin didn’t spell out what campaign tactics in the U.S. he found distasteful. At one point, he described the candidates as “very smart people” who “understand which buttons you need to press” to win support. The resulting attacks, he said, are part of “the U.S. political culture.”
Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook has accused Trump of having “deep financial ties that potentially reach into the Kremlin,” suggesting he could be “just a puppet” for the Russian government.
“We know that Russian intelligence services hacked into the DNC and we know that they arranged for a lot of those emails to be released and we know that Donald Trump has shown a very troubling willingness to back up Putin, to support Putin,” Clinton said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday” on July 30.
Trump in July invited Russia to dig up tens of thousands of emails from Clinton’s time as Secretary of State. A month earlier, he accused the State Department under Clinton of approving the Russian takeover of uranium assets in the U.S. after investors in the deal paid $145 million to the Clinton Foundation.
“Does that mean we control the Clinton family?” Putin asked in the interview. “That’s complete nonsense.”
After eight years of Barack Obama that have seen the U.S. and Russia work together on Iran and Syria despite the worst standoff since the Cold War over Ukraine, the Kremlin is bracing for a tougher opponent in the White House after the November vote. Clinton is ahead in the polls against Trump, who’s promised to improve ties with Russia to fight common threats such as Islamic State and praised Putin’s leadership.
Clinton, who’s called Putin a “bully” other leaders have to stand up to, could heighten tensions with Russia if she becomes president, according to officials in Moscow. She drew Putin’s ire in 2011 when as Secretary of State she accused him of rigging Russia’s election. Putin in turn blamed Clinton and the State Department for instigating opposition protests and accused her of meddling in the Russian vote.
In December, Putin described Trump as a “very colorful and talented man” who wanted to move Russia-U.S. ties to a “deeper level.” Trump, who bragged that Putin had called him a “genius,” responded in kind, saying the Russian president is a “leader” unlike Obama and suggested he’d take a softer line on Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
Yet while Trump offers the Kremlin the tantalizing prospect of better relations, he’s also unpredictable, according to Russian officials. The billionaire businessman has warned he would shoot down Russian planes that challenge the U.S. military.
“I would like to work with a person who can make responsible decisions and implement any agreements that we reach,’’ Putin said, asked who he would prefer to have at the end of the hotline when he’s trying to stabilize a threatening geopolitical situation. “Their last name doesn’t matter.”
“It’s necessary for that person to enjoy the trust of the American people.” Putin said. “That’s why we never intervened, don’t intervene and try not to intervene in domestic political processes” in the U.S., he added.
Under the Russian president, who has been in power under three different occupants of the White House, ties have steadily worsened with the U.S.
In the interview, he accused past administrations — which he didn’t name — of quietly assuring the Kremlin that relations would ultimately improve despite campaigns in which anti-Russian rhetoric ran high. “All this should be more dignified,” he said.