Vladimir Putin says Russia didn't meddle in US vote, despite evidence
The Russian leader warned the US to tread carefully with Venezuela
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday repeated that the Kremlin did not interfere in the 2016 US presidential election, despite the extensive evidence to the contrary.
And Mr Putin insisted that Moscow had no intention of interfering in any future votes.
"We didn't meddle, we aren't meddling and we will not meddle in any elections," he said during a meeting with chief executives of international news agencies in St Petersburg.
But US special counsel Robert Mueller has uncovered evidence of a Kremlin operation to interfere with the 2016 vote and help Donald Trump win the presidency.
He charged 12 Russian military intelligence officers with breaking into Democratic Party emails and indicted other Russians who used fake social media accounts to undermine the US political system.
"We don't have and never had any plans to interfere in US domestic politics," Mr Putin said.
But he said that the Russian government could not stop private citizens from expressing their views online about developments in the US.
"How can we ban them from doing that?" Mr Putin asked. "Do you have such a ban with regard to Russia?"
He said Russia had offered to agree on rules for modern communications with the administrations of Barack Obama and Mr Trump, but neither was ready to make the deal.
Mr Putin also warned that the US reluctance to start talks on extending a major arms control pact raised the threat of an uncontrollable arms race.
He said that Moscow had no plans to send troops to support Venezuela's embattled president, Nicolas Maduro.
Mr Trump tweeted this week that Moscow had told Washington it had "removed most of its people from Venezuela".
But Mr Putin said that his country's experts came and went to service Russian-made weapons bought by Caracas.
"We aren't building any military bases there. We aren't sending troops there. We have never done that," he said.
"But we have fulfilled our contract obligations in the sphere of military-technical co-operation and we will keep doing that."
Mr Putin said the US sanctions against Venezuela hurt ordinary people, and warned Washington against using force to remove Mr Maduro.
Russia has staunchly backed the leader, while the US and dozens of other nations have thrown their support behind opposition leader Juan Guaido.
They have recognised him as interim president, asserting that Mr Maduro's re-election last year was illegitimate.
"The crisis in Venezuela should be settled by the Venezuelan people," Mr Putin said.
"Through dialogue, consultations and co-operation between various political forces, the Venezuelan people themselves must decide whether Mr Maduro should stay in power or not."
He said he felt "absolutely neutral" about Mr Guaido, who he described as a "nice person".
But Mr Putin said Mr Guaido's leadership claim created a precedent that could "lead to chaos across the world."
"Let them elect US presidents, British prime ministers and French presidents like that," he said.
"And where will all that lead? I would like to ask those who support it: 'Are you mad?'"
Mr Putin issued a stern warning about the danger of a new arms race.
He accused the US of shunning talks on extending the New Start nuclear arms reduction treaty, which is set to expire in 2021.
Russia has repeatedly signalled its intention to begin discussions on extending the pact but Washington has been unresponsive, Mr Putin said.
"We have said 100 times already that we are ready, but no one is talking to us," he said.
The New Start pact, signed in 2010 by Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits each country to no more than 1,550 nuclear warheads and 700 missiles and bombers.
Mr Putin said that Russia's new weapons would protect its security "for a long time to come" even if the pact was not extended.
But he voiced concern about the "complete dismantling of arms control mechanisms".
Mr Putin also criticised the US withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and denied Washington's claims that Russia had breached the agreement.
The US has formally suspended its obligations under the treaty, which bans all land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometres.
Russia pulled out after the US and the treaty will terminate this year.
While criticising the US moves, Mr Putin said that his latest call with Mr Trump "encouraged certain optimism".
He said that Mr Trump shared his concern about the arms race and suggested that the money spent on new weapons would be better used for other purposes.
Arms control talks should eventually involve other nuclear powers, Mr Putin said.
"As of now, the talks between us as the countries that have the most powerful nuclear arsenals are the most important," he said.
"But I believe that all nuclear powers, official and unofficial, should be brought in."
Updated: June 6, 2019 11:58 PM