In a press conference earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin answered questions for almost an hour. Unscripted, he expressed his opinion about a wide range of economic and security issues. Asked about rapidly escalating tensions with the United States and Europe, Putin scoffed. Cyber threats against Russia are bogus, he said; everybody knows that Washington is hacking friends as well as enemies. Discussing recent imposition of sanctions against Russia at some length, his calm demeanor winked. Western nations behind the sanctions, including the US, can "screw themselves," he said.
It was a slip that winked only for a moment. The Kremlin's official transcript of the exchange with reporters does not include the epithet. But Russian media, in apparent delight, did not miss it, putting the word "screw" into headline reports.
In fact, Putin's harshest criticism was his assessment of Washington's motives for recent tough talk and military posturing vis-a-vis Moscow.
Taking a line from from the New Testament, he began his remarks by stating, "As we say in Russia, why worry about a speck in your friend's eye when you have a log in your own." It was a line he almost immediately applied to the United States. Its recent anti-Russian rhetoric and saber-rattling, he claimed, is nothing more than "the usual tactics of distracting voters from [the country's economic and foreign policy] problems."
The US is currently in the final weeks of a vituperative presidential campaign. In recent weeks, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, and the current Obama administration have accused Russia of tampering in the campaign process.
In context, Putin's assessment is, if anything, more pointed.
Question: US Vice President Joseph Biden promised... to send you a message and respond to the hacking that the US blames on Russia...
Vladimir Putin: There is nothing surprising about that.
Question: As a matter of fact, it was a threat coming from a very high-ranking official, and if I am not mistaken, it targeted you personally. Do you expect hacking attacks on Russia or some other kinds of attacks?
Vladimir Putin: You can expect anything from our US friends. But was there anything new in what he said? As if we didn’t know that US government bodies snoop on and wiretap everyone?
Everyone knows this all too well, there has long been no secret about it and there is sufficient evidence to support this. Billions of dollars are channelled into this activity, with the NSA and the CIA working on it alongside other government bodies. There are both witness accounts and full-fledged confessions.
In fact, they are spying not only on their real or potential enemies, but also on their allies, including the closest ones. We know about so many wiretapping scandals involving top government officials from countries that are allies of the United States, so there is absolutely nothing new here.
The only new thing is that for the first time the US has acknowledged at such a high level, first, that they actually do this, and second that they are making some kind of a threat, which of course is inconsistent with the norms of international dialogue. This is obvious.
Apparently, they are a little bit nervous. The question is why. I think there is a reason. You know, in an election campaign, the current government carefully crafts a pre-election strategy, and any government, especially when seeking re-election, always has unresolved issues. They need to show, to explain to the voters why they remained unresolved.
In the US, there are many such problems, they certainly have enough of them. While it’s the leading economy in the world, a great power, no doubt, it still has a lot of unsolved problems. For example, the massive public debt is a time bomb for the US economy and for the global financial system. Nobody knows what to do. Maybe devaluation in the future might help, or something. But what? There’s no answer. This is just an example.
More examples can be cited in foreign policy. The Middle East reconciliation process, broadly speaking, is certainly stalling, including between Israel and Palestine, unfortunately. Moreover, tensions are growing between the United States and their regular allies in the region.
We are not going to go deep into this business – it is their problem. I'm just saying that there are many problems, and in these conditions, many choose to resort to the usual tactics of distracting voters from their problems.
In my view, this is exactly what we are witnessing. How do you do it? Try to create an enemy and rally the nation against that enemy. Iran and the Iranian nuclear threat did not work well for that. Russia is a more interesting story. In my opinion, this card is being played now.
Notably, Israel found itself in Putin's critique. As the new superpower in the Middle East, it was an implication that Moscow, unlike Washington, might do more than just talk when it comes to peace between Israel and Palestinian entities in Ramallah and Gaza.
As for US elections, and the allegation of Russian tampering, Putin returned to the issue later in the press conference.
"I would like to reassure you all," he said, "including our American partners and friends: we have no plans to influence the election campaign in the United States."
Why not? Because "we do not know what will happen after the US President is elected. Ms Clinton chose her aggressive rhetoric and aggressive stance with regard to Russia, and Mr Trump, on the contrary, is calling for cooperation, at least against terrorism."
The full, official transcript of Putin's Q and A is available on the Kremlin's English language website here.