Vladimir Putin has denied Russia was behind the poisoning of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, calling a recent investigation by Bellingcat a “falsification”.
“Who needs to poison him,” he said during a nationally televised press conference, denying that Russia’s FSB spy agency was involved. “If they’d wanted to [poison him] then they probably would have finished the job.”
The Russian president said he had been told of Bellingcat’s report that accused the FSB of dispatching a hit squad to poison Navalny with a nerve agent similar to the one used in Salisbury in 2018.
Navalny, who nearly died in the attack, was evacuated to the Charité clinic in Berlin for treatment.
In the Kremlin’s first public reaction to the accusations, Putin accused US intelligence agencies of leaking information in the case. “It means that this Berlin patient has the support of the American intelligence services,” he said.
He also called Bellingcat, the online investigative collective founded by Eliot Higgins, a front for foreign intelligence agencies. “It’s not an investigation, it’s the legalisation of the materials of American intelligence agencies,” he said from his residence at Novo-Ogaryovo.
The Bellingcat investigation used mobile phone data and other personal data to identify and track eight FSB agents who shadowed Navalny up until the attack and who had ties to a chemical weapons agency.
The recent investigations into Russia’s security services have shown that data security has become an urgent issue of national security for the Kremlin.
“What, you don’t think we know that they’re tracking geolocations?” Putin said, attempting to laugh off the investigation. “Our intelligence agencies know that. Agents of the FSB and other special agencies know this. And they use their telephones where they think it’s necessary, not hiding their location.”
He also accused the US government of sponsoring other investigations into his family and associates. One, which was not mentioned on television, used property and business records to bolster claims that he had a daughter from a secret mistress.
“That’s the Department of State and US security services, they are the real authors. Anyway, this has clearly been done on their orders. This is absolutely obvious,” Putin said.
Speaking at an annual year-end press conference, Putin also addressed the coronavirus epidemic, which has killed 48,000 people in Russia, according to official statistics (and far more according to informal tallies). He said he had not yet received a domestically produced vaccination against coronavirus because it was not recommended for people over 65.
“I listen to the recommendations of our specialists, which is why the vaccine has not been administered on me, as specialists say, but I will do so without doubt as soon as this becomes possible,” he said.
Putin was also expected to answer questions on protests and wars in post-Soviet countries and the US cyberhack, at the end a turbulent year for the Kremlin.
Owing to the coronavirus epidemic, Putin was appearing from his residence at Novo-Ogaryovo by video link, though journalists still crowded into a hall in Moscow to ask questions.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, had promised that Thursday’s event would be “rather long and informative”. The televised event, which is usually something of a spectacle, can last more than four hours.
The president has made few public appearances since the start of the Covid crisis, mostly telecommuting from a windowless room that critics have derided as his “bunker”.
The event is usually attended by hundreds of journalists, some of whom paint elaborate signs or hold up stuffed animals to attract Peskov’s attention.
While Putin has fielded tough questions in past years, there are rarely opportunities to ask follow-up questions, and he has avoided making major gaffes during the events.
A recent report by the Proekt investigative outlet claimed Putin had been working from Sochi, a resort city on the Black Sea, where he has installed an identical office. The Kremlin has denied those reports, although travel records of top officials meeting Putin suggest they may be true.