President Vladimir Putin has emphatically denied allegations of Russian meddling in the US presidential election and said Moscow will maintain hopes of improving relations while waiting for political infighting in Washington to stop.
Mr Putin also said he is ready to meet US President Donald Trump in Finland if the country hosts an Arctic leaders’ summit, but added that he would wait longer if needed.
“We are seeing what’s going on. They are preventing the new president from fulfilling his campaign promises on many issues: healthcare, other issues, international relations, ties with Russia,” Mr Putin said in remarks at a forum in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk.
“We are waiting for the situation to normalise and become more stable. And we aren’t interfering in any way.”
The Kremlin had hoped for a thaw in relations with the United States with Mr Trump’s election, but the congressional investigation of possible links between his campaign and Russia has dashed expectations of any quick improvement.
As the US Senate intelligence committee opened a hearing on Thursday on the allegations of Russian meddling on Mr Trump’s behalf, Democratic Senator Mark Warner said Mr Putin “ordered a deliberate campaign carefully constructed to undermine our election”.
In his strongest statement yet on the subject, Mr Putin dismissed what he called “endless and groundless” accusations against Russia. Pressed about the allegations at the forum by CNBC’s Geoff Cutmore, who hosted the discussion, Mr Putin answered by quoting former US president George HW Bush.
For emphasis, he pronounced the last word in English.
“This anti-Russian card is being played in the interests of some political forces inside the United States with an aim to strengthen and consolidate their positions,” mR Putin said, without naming anyone.
He also warned that the escalation of tensions would contradict American interests.
“I don’t think it’s in the interests of the majority of the American people to bring the US-Russian relations to absurdity for the sake of domestic politics,” he said.
“Do we want to completely cut diplomatic relations? Do we want to bring the situation to what it was in the 1960s during the Cuban (missile) crisis? Where do people behaving in such an irresponsible way want to take us all, including the American people.”
Pointing to the attention being paid in the US to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak’s contacts with members of Mr Trump’s team, Mr Putin criticised attempts to cast the interactions as “some sort of spy action”.
“Isn’t it nonsense?” he said. “What is the ambassador there for? He’s there to speak to people, to maintain contacts with the political elite, with businessmen, with members of the House and the Senate, with administration officials.”
Mr Putin noted that US ambassador to Russia John Tefft was attending Thursday’s forum and has a chance to meet with Russian government members there. “We aren’t obstructing it, just the opposite, we are helping it,” he said.
Mr Putin praised Mr Trump’s pledge to fight terrorism, saying that Russia stands ready to co-operate.
“Only by pooling efforts can we efficiently combat terrorism,” Mr Putin said. “I hope that we will eventually come to constructive co-operation.”
The Russian leader added that he is looking forward to discussing the issue with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson if he visits Moscow, noting that it is essential for the CIA and Pentagon to co-operate with their Russian counterparts.
No date has been set for Mr Tillerson to travel to Russia.
Under President Barack Obama’s administration, the US cut defence and intelligence contacts with Russia in response to Moscow’s action in Ukraine.
Mr Putin also dismissed Western calls for the release of Russians who were arrested for participating in unauthorised anti-corruption protests in Moscow and dozens of other cities last weekend, calling the detentions a domestic issue.
He noted that anti-corruption slogans were also used to topple the governments during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, as well as in Ukraine.
The rallies marked the largest public show of discontent in years, casting an open challenge to the Russian leader a year before he faces re-election. Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said his country would be honoured to host a summit of Arctic nations’ leaders that could serve as the setting for a meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Trump.
In May, Finland is set to assume the rotating leadership of the Arctic Council, which also includes Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
Mr Putin said he would be glad to go to such a meeting but added that he would also be ready to meet Mr Trump in Germany at a July G20 summit that they both plan to attend.
It was not the first time the Russian leader floated the idea of a meeting with Mr Trump.
Earlier this year, Mr Putin thanked Slovenia for its offer to host a proposed meeting with Mr Trump, but noted that it would depend on Washington.
He said Russia expects the US political wrangling over the Trump team’s connections to Russia to end at some point, opening the way for a constructive summit.
“There are many issues which long have come to a head in the economic and security fields and regarding regional conflicts,” Mr Putin said.
“We are ready for that discussion. It’s necessary for the other side to also show goodwill and readiness for constructive work.”