KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused American politicians of whipping up hysteria about a mythical Russian threat as a ploy to distract voters from their own failings in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election.
Putin, addressing an audience of foreign policy experts gathered in southern Russia, repeatedly lashed out at the Obama administration, saying it did not keep its word on Syria, did not honour deals, and had falsely accused Moscow of all manner of sins.
The U.S. government has formally accused Russia of a campaign of cyber attacks against Democratic Party organisations, while Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has accused Republican rival Donald Trump of being a Putin “puppet”.
Putin said he found it hard to believe that anyone seriously thought Moscow was capable of influencing the Nov. 8 election.
“Hysteria has been whipped up,” said Putin.
He said that was a ruse to cover up for the fact that the U.S. political elite had nothing to say about serious issues such as the country’s national debt or gun control.
“It’s much simpler to distract people with so-called Russian hackers, spies, and agents of influence. Does anyone really think that Russia could influence the American people’s choice in any way? Is America a banana republic or what? America is a great power.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest dismissed Putin’s remarks as predictable and said the United States stood by its hacking allegations.
“There’s nothing that President Putin had to say today that I find particularly surprising or that in any way undermines the president’s confidence in the analysis that’s been released by the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence community,” said Earnest.
Russian state TV and some of his past comments have suggested the Russian leader favours Trump, but Putin said he did not back any candidate in the U.S. election and was ready to work with any new U.S. president and to discuss any issue.
Asked about Trump, whom he once described as “very talented,” Putin said the Republican candidate was deliberately adopting a showy style because he wanted to get his message across and that he represented ordinary voters fed up with the U.S. political elite.
“He has chosen a method to get through to voters’ hearts,” said Putin. “He behaves extravagantly of course, we see this, but I think there’s a reason for this.”
Putin dismissed suggestions by some politicians in the West that Russia is poised to attack another country or intervene elsewhere in the Middle East apart from Syria.
Such talk was designed to exaggerate the threat that Russia posed, he said, in order for certain countries to secure higher military spending and talk up their own importance.
He said Russia was not planning to attack anyone.
But he made clear Russia was in Syria for the long haul and intended to clear the city of Aleppo of what he called “a nest of terrorists”, while trying to minimise civilian casualties.
Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Andrew Roche