Putin says Russia could have killed Navalny had it wanted to

President Vladimir Putin dismissed reports linking Russia’s secret services to the near-fatal poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, saying if authorities had wanted to kill the politician they would have succeeded.

Accusing Navalny of ties to US intelligence, Putin said Russian agents needed to monitor him. “But this doesn’t mean at all we needed to poison him. Who is he of use to? If we had wanted to, we would have finished the job,” he told his annual press conference on Thursday.

In a 4 1/2-hour video link with journalists from around the country, the Russian leader struck a confident tone, saying his nation had done better than the US and Europe in combating the coronavirus pandemic. The 68-year-old leader expressed caution, however, about taking the Russian vaccine that Moscow has used as a soft-power tool because it hasn’t been fully tested on people his age.

Tensions have surged in recent months between Russia and European nations led by Germany over the poisoning of Navalny, who’s recovering in Berlin after a nerve-agent attack on him in Siberia in August that he and western governments have blamed on the Kremlin. The European Union in October sanctioned six senior Russian officials over the use of the banned poison.

Navalny was followed from at least Jan. 2017 by a clandestine unit of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB that focused on poisons, investigative website Bellingcat reported this week, citing leaked phone and travel data.

Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, expressed shock at Putin’s comments. “I remind you this is the country’s president speaking,” she said on Instagram. “But the most important thing in Putin’s answer: he confirmed that FSB agents tailed Navalny. Only not to poison him but to follow him.” Navalny said later German prosecutors had questioned him Thursday at the request of Russian authorities.

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Putin expressed confidence that Moscow can at least partially improve fraught ties with Washington under incoming President Joe Biden, describing him as “experienced” in both foreign and domestic policy. President Donald Trump won’t leave political life given the broad support he has in the US after winning almost 50% of votes, he said.

Putin blamed the US and its allies for increasing pressure on Russia, which he described as “white and fluffy” by comparison.

Asked about the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, which the Trump administration has sought to block with sanctions, Putin said he hoped the incoming US president wouldn’t oppose the project, which will be completed soon.

As for his own future, Putin said he hasn’t yet decided if he will run again in presidential elections set for 2024. He has the right to serve two more terms until 2036 after removing limits in a constitutional overhaul this year.

Putin said Russia is coping better than advanced economies in Europe and the US from the fallout of the pandemic, vowing to take steps to counter falling incomes, including announcing a new one-time payment for families with children.

The world’s largest energy exporter warded off the crisis better than initially anticipated, mainly because many industries continued working through the pandemic and the size of its service sector is smaller than in western countries. After shrinking 4% this year, the economy may grow 2.6% next unless Covid-19 cases continue growing into the second half of 2021, which would curtail growth to 0.6%, according to the World Bank.

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Putin says Russia could have killed Navalny had it wanted to