Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied that Moscow ever interferes in elections in other countries.
During a tense appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr Putin said accusations of meddling in last year’s US presidential election were “simply rumours” being used as part of the political fight in Washington.
Speaking during a joint news conference following talks with Mrs Merkel at his Black Sea residence in Sochi, he also denied interfering in European elections. US intelligence agencies say they have definitive evidence that Moscow was behind the hacking of Democratic email accounts, with the aim of benefiting Donald Trump’s campaign and harming his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Mrs Merkel said she was confident that Germany could weather any disinformation campaign targeting its upcoming election. Asked about the threat during the news conference, she cited two recent incidents of what she described as “gross misinformation”.
In one instance, Russian media and the foreign minister claimed that a 13-year-old girl of Russian origin had been kidnapped and raped by asylum-seekers in Berlin, and that German authorities were covering up the case. Police later determined the girl had made up the kidnapping, although a man in his 20s was charged with sexual abuse of a minor because she was below the age of consent.
Mrs Merkel said Germany would take “decisive measures” if it believed there was foreign meddling in the election, adding it was well-known that “hybrid warfare plays a role in Russia’s military doctrine”. Her visit to Sochi was her first trip to Russia in two years, as relations between the two countries remain strained in large part over the unresolved conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Mrs Merkel and Mr Putin last met in Germany in October for talks aimed at reviving the stalled peace process. The deal brokered by Germany and France in 2015 has helped reduce the scale of fighting between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces, but violence has continued and attempts to reach a political settlement have failed.
The two leaders heatedly disagreed on the cause of the conflict but both confirmed their support for the peace agreement negotiated in Minsk, Belarus.