Russian President Vladimir Putin denied Tuesday that Russia interfered in last year’s U.S. presidential election, saying such allegations are “simply rumors” that are being leveraged for political reasons in the United States.
Putin’s denial came at a joint news conference in Sochi, Russia, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel after the two leaders met amid increasingly strained relations over the war in Syria, and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region in neighboring Ukraine.
Putin’s remarks are at odds with findings from U.S. intelligence agencies that have reported Russia was responsible for the hacking of Democratic Party email accounts, which were intended to benefit Republican Donald Trump and harm his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
In response to a reporter’s question, Merkel said she was not fearful about the threat of Russian interference during this year’s German elections and would respond to inaccurate information with facts.
“I am not an anxious person. I will fight the election on the basis of my convictions,” she said, adding that Germans would handle decisively any disinformation campaigns.
Before the meeting at the Black Sea resort in Sochi, Putin said the talks were an opportunity to discuss Ukraine and Syria, although Merkel signaled no major breakthroughs were expected.
The two leaders last met in Germany in October 2016 in an attempt to revive the stalled peace process in eastern Ukraine. Although a peace agreement mediated by Germany and France in 2015 has helped reduce the fighting, violence has continued.
Merkel and Putin strongly disagreed Tuesday on the cause of the Ukrainian conflict. But both confirmed their support for the peace agreement.
On Syria, Germany has been firmly opposed to Russia’s support for President Bashar al-Assad. Merkel has suggested that Russia was partly responsible for atrocities resulting from airstrikes carried out by Russian forces in civilian areas.
Putin on Tuesday called for strengthening Syria’s fragile truce. Russian-led peace negotiations involving Syrian rebels and government officials are set to begin Wednesday in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana.
“Our task is to create conditions for unification, the cessation of hostilities, the cessation of mutual destruction and the creation of conditions for political cooperation of all opposing sides,” Putin said at the news conference.
Also during the meeting, Merkel asked Putin to help ensure the rights of gays in Chechnya, one day after Russian police arrested gay rights activists.
During a May Day parade Monday in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, Russian police arrested about 20 protesters, including the leader of an organization that is helping gay men escape from Chechnya, where they are reportedly subject to torture and other types of abuse.
Russia has stringent rules on political activity in public places, and Putin defended Russian police after meeting with Merkel, saying they have acted within the law when breaking up recent rallies.
“Russia’s law-enforcement bodies behave in a far more restrained manner than their colleagues in other European countries,” Putin said at the news conference.
Tuesday’s trip to Russia was Merkel’s first for a bilateral meeting there since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, which precipitated the most intense confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.