MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused the United States of trying to interfere with Russia's presidential campaign in retaliation for what the Kremlin dismisses as unfounded U.S. allegations that Moscow interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential vote.
One the eve of a possible meeting with President Trump at an economic forum in Vietnam, Putin suggested that the United States is pressing for the disqualification of Russian athletes at the 2018 Winter Olympics as a way of creating discontent with his tenure as president.
The International Olympic Committee this month disqualified two Russian cross-country skiers. With fewer than 100 days before the beginning of the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, the IOC has still not made a decision about whether to let the country that hosted the 2014 Games participate.
"What worries me is that the Olympic Games are due to start in February, and when is our presidential election? In March," Putin told workers at a Ural Mountains factory, according to Russian news agencies. "There are very strong suspicions that all that is done because someone needs to create an atmosphere of discontent among sports fans and athletes over the state's alleged involvement in violations and responsibility for it."
The United States, he said, "wants to create problems in the Russian presidential election in response to our alleged interference in theirs."
In September, after the World Anti-Doping Agency dismissed 95 cases of suspected Russian doping, citing lack of evidence, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and 16 other national anti-doping organizations demanded Russia still be banned from next year's Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Russia's reputation as an Olympic power was sundered in 2016 when a report into systematic doping described a vast "institutional conspiracy" that included more than 1,000 athletes in more than 30 sports, and tainted the drug-testing system at the 2012 and 2014 Olympics.
In his remarks Thursday, Putin implied that the United States held undue leverage over the IOC through sponsorships, broadcasting rights and advertising.
"It is a large body of ties and dependencies," he said. "And the controlling interest is in the United States, because major companies contracting and paying for television broadcasting rights, major sponsors, major advertisers are there."
Trump's election inspired hopes here of improved relations with Washington, but that optimism has vanished amid the U.S. inquiries into the Kremlin's interference in the 2016 campaign. With an investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow producing its first indictments, Russian observers expect little progress if the two presidents meet at an Asian economic summit in Danang, Vietnam that begins Friday evening.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday told reporters that the meeting could take place, but that details were still being worked out.
By portraying the doping scandal as a conspiracy of anti-Russian forces, with the United States in the lead, Putin might be hoping to turn Russians anger from the Kremlin to the usual enemies in the West.
The revelations of widespread doping at the Sochi Olympics dealt a blow to Putin and to Russians in general, said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at Carnegie Moscow Center.
"Many were proud about winning the most medals in the Sochi Olympics and see this victory as a symbol of national revival and return to a great power status, healing the wounds of the U.S.S.R.'s collapse," he said. "Since the victory was fake, many people turn their anger on a government that couldn't build up a sport system that would produce champions, and instead created a system of cheating."
Putin is also concerned about turnout in the March 2018 elections, Gabuev said.
"If the Americans want to interfere into the Russian elections, as Putin's narrative suggests, than going to the polls is an act of patriotic war against the aggressor," he said. "If the Americans want to steal the elections, true Russians should organize and go to vote for Putin – this seems to be the hidden message of the accusations."