Less than two weeks from a first face-to-face with President Biden in Geneva, Russian President Vladimir Putin today criticized the U.S. prosecution of rioters who took part in the January attack on the Capitol.
The comments are likely to add to the pessimism in both Moscow and Washington that the June 16 summit will lead to a breakthrough between the two countries.
Relations remain deeply strained over issues such as cyberattacks that Western intelligence says originate in Russia.
Meanwhile, Putin today claimed that the United States wants to “suppress” Russia.
He suggested the agenda for the summit with Biden could cover issues of potential common ground, such as climate, the pandemic, disarmament and combating terrorism.
That differed from Biden’s preview of the summit last week, when he said he would press Putin on human rights abuses such as Russia’s treatment of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
In response, the Kremlin has attempted to draw an equivalency to the U.S. treatment of the Capitol rioters.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called it a “persecution” earlier this week.
“These are not looters or thieves, these people came with political requests,” Putin said of the pro-Trump mobs that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The moderator at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum then asked Putin to clarify if he was defending the rioters, adding in a joking tone that the comments could lead to Putin “being banned online.”
“I’m not giving any evaluations to the actual event. I’m talking about what followed after,” he said, adding that he does “not give a damn” if he is banned from social media sites.
Applause from the crowd followed.
About 500 people have been charged in the investigation into the Capitol riot for offenses such as assaulting police officers, violent entry to Congress and disorderly conduct.
In a separate interview with state television after his session at the St. Petersburg conference, Putin called Biden “a very experienced man. He has been in politics all his life. He is experienced, I hope, and very sensible and careful as a person.”
“I very much hope that our meeting will be positive,” Putin added. “I don’t expect any breakthrough in Russian-U. S. relations, anything that could amaze us all with its results.”
One subject that could come up between the leaders is Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko after Putin did nothing to break ranks with his strongman ally.
Lukashenko last month sparked international outrage for forcing down a civilian jetliner flying over Belarus last month to arrest an opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich, who was on board.
Also arrested was Russian activist Sofia Sapega, who was traveling with Protasevich on the flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania.
Lukashenko has claimed that Belarus air traffic controllers diverted the plane because of a emailed bomb threat purporting to be from the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
The email, however, appeared to be sent after the plane was diverted, according to the email service provider. Hamas also denied issuing any bomb threat.
Detained Belarus opposition journalist breaks down in state TV interview, renewing claims of coercion.
Asked if he believed Lukashenko’s explanation, Putin said, “Honestly, I don’t know.”
He added that he preferred not to give an opinion, but Russian special services did not play a part.
The moderator then posed a hypothetical: “Would Russia force down a plane flying, for example, from London to Thailand over Russia if there was someone on board on Russia’s wanted list?”
“I won’t tell you,” Putin answered, drawing laughter and applause from the crowd.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s crackdown on its critics has continued.
Earlier this week, Russian authorities detained opposition politicians Dmitry Gudkov, a former parliamentarian who has been critical of Putin, and Andrei Pivovarov, director of Open Russia, a now defunct opposition group linked to exiled businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Navalny marked his 45th birthday on Friday, while serving a more-than two-year prison sentence on charges international observers and his allies have said were fabricated as a way to silence him.
Putin avoided referencing the United States for the majority of his session, a rare in-person appearance by him since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
He instead boasted that the first line of Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — linking Russia and Germany — was completed just hours earlier.
The multibillion-dollar pipeline has been a point of contention between the United States and Russia.
Putin said the second line of pipes will be finished within a couple of months.
The Biden administration last month eased sanctions on the pipeline, billed as an effort by Washington to mend relations with Berlin and other European partners.
It was criticized by some Republican U.S. senators as allowing Russia to use Nord Stream 2 to increase some European Union states’ dependency on Moscow.
The United States is an exporter of natural gas to Europe, but Russian gas is cheaper.
“I think it should go ahead especially now that the new U.S. administration said it wants to build friendly relations with its partners in Europe,” Putin said at the St. Petersburg forum. “How can you build good relations with your partners and completely disregard their interests?”
This article appeared in The Washington Post.