Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on after a meeting with President of Iceland Gudni Johannesson at sidewalks of the International Arctic Forum in Arkhangelsk, Russia, Thursday, March 30, 2017. (Sergei Karpukhin/Pool photo via AP)
MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin on Thursday emphatically denied allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and said Moscow would maintain hopes of improving relations while waiting for political infighting in Washington to stop.
Putin also said he is ready to meet with President Donald Trump in Finland if that 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: health care, other issues, international relations, ties with Russia," Putin said in remarks at a forum in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk. "We are waiting for the situation to normalize 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 Trump's election, but the congressional investigation of possible links between his campaign and Russia has dashed expectations of any quick improvement.
As the U.S. Senate intelligence committee opened a hearing Thursday on the allegations of Russian meddling on Trump's behalf, Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner said Putin "ordered a deliberate campaign carefully constructed to undermine our election."
In his strongest statement yet on the subject, 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, Putin answered by quoting former President George H.W. Bush.
Putin said: "Read my lips: No."
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," 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 U.S.-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 U.S. to Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak's contacts with members of Trump's team, Putin criticized 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."
On Wednesday, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Senate committee, said one witness would be Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The White House has said Kushner, a senior adviser to Trump, has volunteered to answer questions about arranging meetings with the Russian ambassador and other officials, saying he was "doing his job" by reaching out to foreign officials.
Putin said such meetings were normal.
"They are now also taking up the issue of the meetings our businessmen and bankers had there," he said. "Don't American businessmen come here and speak to our representatives, including Russian government officials? Otherwise how can they work? Of course they do."
Putin noted that U.S. Ambassador John Tefft to Russia 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.
Putin praised Trump's pledge to fight terrorism, saying that Russia stands ready to cooperate.
"Only by pooling efforts can we efficiently combat terrorism," Putin said. "I hope that we will eventually come to constructive cooperation."
The Russian leader added that he's looking forward to discussing the issue with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson if he visits Moscow, noting that it's essential for the CIA and Pentagon to cooperate with their Russian counterparts.
No date has been set for Tillerson to travel to Russia.
Under President Barack Obama's administration, the U.S. cut defense and intelligence contacts with Russia in response to Moscow's action in Ukraine.
Putin also dismissed Western calls for the release of Russians who were arrested for participating in unauthorized 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 honored to host a summit of Arctic nations' leaders that could serve as the setting for a meeting between Putin and 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.
Putin said he would be glad to go to such a meeting but added that he also would be ready to meet Trump in Germany at a July G-20 summit that they both plan to attend.
It wasn't the first time the Russian leader floated the idea of a meeting with Trump. Earlier this year, Putin thanked Slovenia for its offer to host a proposed meeting with Trump, but noted that it would depend on Washington.
He said Russia expects the U.S. 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," Putin said. "We are ready for that discussion. It's necessary for the other side to also show goodwill and readiness for constructive work."Associated Press