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‘Who is he of use to?’ — Putin says Russia would have killed Navalny had it wanted to

Putin accused Alexey Navalny of ties to US intelligence and said Russian agents needed to monitor him but denied that the opposition leader was poisoned.

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President Vladimir Putin dismissed new information linking Russian secret services to the near-fatal poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, saying if Russia had wanted to kill the politician it would have succeeded.

Accusing Navalny of ties to U.S. intelligence, Putin said Russian agents needed to monitor him. “But this doesn’t mean at all we needed to poison him. Who is he of use to? If we had wanted to, we would have carried this through to the end,” he told his annual press conference on Thursday.

In a wide-ranging video-link with journalists from around the country, the Russian leader struck a confident tone, saying his nation had done better than the U.S. and Europe in combating the coronavirus pandemic. He expressed caution, however, about vaccinating himself with the Russian vaccine that Moscow has used as a soft-power tool because of his age.

Tensions have surged in recent months between Russia and European nations led by Germany over the poisoning of Navalny, who’s recovering in Berlin after a nerve-agent attack on him in Siberia in August that he and western governments have blamed on the Kremlin. The European Union in October sanctioned six senior Russian officials over the use of the poison.

Biden ‘experienced’

Navalny was followed from at least Jan. 2017 by a clandestine unit of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) that focused on poisons, investigative website Bellingcat reported this week, citing leaked phone and travel data. Operatives traveled alongside Navalny to Novosibirsk and then to Tomsk, the report said.

Putin said the attack was aimed at discrediting the Russian leadership and said the leaks came from U.S. intelligence.

Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, expressed shock at Putin’s comments. “I remind you this is the country’s president speaking,” she said on Instagram. “But the most important thing in Putin’s answer: he confirmed that FSB agents tailed Navalny. Only not to poison him but to follow him.”

The Russian leader expressed confidence that Moscow can at least partially improve fraught ties with Washington under incoming President Joe Biden, describing him as “experienced” in both foreign and domestic policy. Putin said he is certain President Donald Trump won’t leave political life given the broad support he has in the U.S. after winning almost 50% of votes.

Asked about the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, which the Trump administration has sought to block with sanctions, Putin said he hoped the incoming U.S. president wouldn’t oppose the project, which will be completed soon.

As for his own future, Putin said he hasn’t yet decided if he will run again in presidential elections set for 2024.

Putin, 68, said he’s not ready yet to take a Russian vaccine against Covid-19 because the available ones haven’t been tested for his age group.

“I’ll do it as soon as it becomes possible,” he said.

Also read: All about Novichok, the Soviet-era nerve agent used to poison Putin critic Alexei Navalny

Covid-19 vaccine

Russia has the fourth-most cases of coronavirus globally at more than 2.7 million. It started a national campaign to vaccinate the public against the virus with the Sputnik V vaccine, but demand for the free shots has so far been limited.

Putin said vaccine production continues to be held back by lack of necessary equipment, but pledged that output would reach millions of doses per month next year. In response to a question, he said Russia’s distribution of the vaccine to other countries wouldn’t affect availability at home.

Sputnik V had officially been authorized for use only on people up to 60 years old. But several prominent officials above that age, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, 65, and ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 74, have been shown on national television taking the shots.

Putin said Russia is coping better than advanced economies in Europe and the U.S. from the fallout of the pandemic.

Russia’s economy has contracted 3.6% so far this year, Putin said. “That’s less than all leading countries in Europe and the European Union, less than the U.S.,” he said. The Russian healthcare system proved more prepared and “more effective” than other major nations in dealing with the spread of the virus, Putin added.

The Russian leader acknowledged, however, that real incomes will fall 3% this year.

The world’s largest energy exporter warded off the crisis better than initially anticipated, mainly because many industries continued working through the pandemic and the size of its service sector is smaller than in western countries. After shrinking 4% this year, the economy may grow 2.6% next unless Covid-19 cases continue growing into the second half of 2021, which would curtail growth to 0.6%, according to the World Bank.- Bloomberg

Also read: EU sanctions 6 Putin allies, including Russian spy agency chief, over poisoning of Navalny


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