Praise for U.S. President Donald Trump and attacks on his own political opponents made up the bulk of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual end-of-year address Thursday.
Putin said the United States was in the grip of a fabricated "spymania" whipped up by Trump's opponents, but that he believes battered U.S.-Russia relations would recover one day.
Putin noted what he said were Trump's uncontested achievements.
"I'm not the one to evaluate the [U.S.] president's work. That needs to be done by the voters, the American people," Putin told an audience of more than 1,600 Russian and foreign reporters in a Moscow conference hall.
"[But] we are objectively seeing that there have been some major accomplishments, even in the short time he has been
working. Look at how the markets have grown. This speaks to investors' trust in the American economy."
Trump took office in January, saying he was keen to mend ties that had fallen to a post-Cold War low. But since then, ties have soured further after U.S. officials said Russia meddled in the presidential election — something Moscow denies.
The U.S. Congress is also investigating alleged contacts between the Trump election campaign and Russian officials amid fears that Moscow may have been trying to exercise improper influence.
You have to use a sign to get Putin’s press secretary’s attention. This is ours. pic.twitter.com/Wu7vYw09Tj— @CBCChrisBrown
Putin dismissed those allegations and the idea of any kind of improper Russia connection as "fabricated" and "invented by people who oppose Trump to give his work an illegitimate character."
He said he was puzzled by the infighting, which "inflicted damage to the [U.S.] domestic political situation" and showed "lack of respect for voters" who chose Trump, with whom he says he is on a first-name basis.
Warns U.S. not to use force against North Korea
He did, however, warn the U.S. not to use force against North Korea, adding that the consequences will be "catastrophic."
He emphasized that Russia opposes Pyongyang's nuclear bid and is ready for "constructive" co-operation to end the standoff. He added, however, that the U.S. "provoked" Pyongyang to develop its nuclear and missile programs by spiking a 2005 deal with Pyongyang.
After the news conference, Trump spoke to Putin by phone, thanking Putin for "acknowledging America's strong economic performance," the White House said in a statement.
The two presidents discussed ways to work together to address North Korea's nuclear and ballistic weapons program, the White House said.
In an equally brief statement, the Kremlin said in addition to North Korea, Trump and Putin discussed relations between their two countries and agreed to stay in contact. The Kremlin made a point of noting that Trump initiated the call.
FBI behind Olympic doping claims
Asked about accusations of state-supported doping that led to Russia being banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, Putin alleged that there is a political element behind the claims, which Russia has denied.
He suggested the FBI has manipulated evidence from the main whistleblower, Grigory Rodchenkov, who is under witness protection after fleeing to the United States last year. Rodchenkov is "under the control" of the FBI and "American special services."
He indicated that U.S. agencies may be giving Rodchenkov unspecified "substances so that he says what's required."
He suggested Rodchenkov may have brought illegal drugs back to Russia from Canada and the U.S., according to CBC's Chris Brown, who was at the event.
Running as an Independent
Putin, seeking a new term in office in a March 18 election, said he would run as an Independent candidate, keeping a distance from the main Kremlin-controlled party, United Russia, whose many members have been dogged by corruption accusations.
Putin said he would welcome political competition but insists that the opposition must offer a positive program.
Answering a question from celebrity TV host Ksenia Sobchak, who wants to challenge him in the election, Putin said he doesn't fear the opposition — but did not mention by name opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has declared his intention to run but is barred from entering the campaign by an embezzlement conviction he claims is politically motivated.
Putin, 65, has been in power, either as president or prime minister, since 2000, longer than veteran Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and outstripped only by dictator Josef Stalin.
If, as expected, he wins what would be a fourth presidential term, he will be eligible to serve another six years until 2024, when he turns 72.
He said Russia's economy has overcome recession and is on track for reliable growth, having overcome the negative effects of a combined blow of a drop in oil prices and Western sanctions. He said the nation also recorded the lowest inflation this year since the Soviet collapse.