Kremlin dismisses claims that Putin influenced by request from Trump transition team as 'absurd'

US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Apec summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov 11. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (NYTIMES) - The Kremlin said on Monday (Dec 4) that it was "absurd" to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin was influenced in any way by a request from the Trump transition team last December to refrain from retaliating against sanctions imposed by then US President Barack Obama over Russian meddling in the US election.

"The President makes his own decisions, guided solely by Russia's national interests," said the Kremlin's spokesman, Mr Dmitry Peskov.

President Donald Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty last week to lying to the FBI about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to Washington at the time, Mr Sergey Kislyak.

In court papers released as part of the plea agreement, he said he had urged the Kremlin to hold its fire.

Mr Kislyak later told Flynn that Russia had chosen "to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of his request", according to the court documents.

On Dec 30, despite widespread expectations of a tough retaliation that had already been announced by the Russian Foreign Minister, Mr Sergey Lavrov, Mr Putin released a statement saying that Russia will not respond in kind.

"Although we have the right to retaliate, we will not resort to irresponsible 'kitchen' diplomacy, but will plan our further steps to restore Russian-US relations based on the policies of the Trump administration," Mr Putin said in the statement.

Despite the account in the court documents - which was based on intelligence intercepts - Mr Peskov, the Kremlin's spokesman, dismissed as incredible Flynn's version of events.

"Flynn could not have asked Sergey Ivanovych about anything," he said of the former ambassador. "Moreover, these requests could not have been passed on to the Russian President."

Russian lawmakers and pro-Kremlin commentators said that far from damning, Flynn's plea proved once again that the investigation being led by the special prosecutor, Mr Robert Mueller, into collusion between Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government is a pointless exercise.

"Mueller has nothing on Flynn," said Mr Alexei Pushkov, a member of the Federation Council, the Upper House of Parliament.

"Witch-hunters are returning empty-handed," he said in his Twitter account, calling the whole Russia interference inquiry "a bag of smoke".

The Kremlin has denied repeatedly there was any centralised effort to interfere with the presidential election, asking for hard proof.

In fact, US intelligence services have identified two Russian hacking groups, code named Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, that spearheaded the effort.

Mr Konstantin Kosachyov, another senator, said Flynn's plea shows that he was trying to influence the Kremlin, not vice versa.

"This doesn't add anything to the 'Russian conspiracy' theory," Mr Kosachyov wrote in his Facebook account, describing the situation as "the theatre of the absurd".

Other commentators went further, suggesting that the series of disclosures emanating from Washington about possible Kremlin interference is an effort to destabilise the political situation in Russia before its own presidential election, scheduled for next March.

"This is another turn in the war against Trump and Russia," said Mr Vyacheslav Nikonov, a State Duma deputy, on Russia's prime political talk show on Sunday.

"In the coming months, we can expect this campaign to escalate, as we approach towards our election."

Mr Alexander Domrin, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, suggested that Flynn will tell the Mueller investigation what it wanted to hear in order to win a more lenient sentence for his plea.

"In order to rescue himself, his former adviser Flynn can 'recall' at his testimony in front of the Mueller commission something that has not happened," Mr Domrin told Komsomolskaya Pravda, a popular tabloid. "If real proof of 'Trump's collusion with the Russians existed, it would have been presented already one year ago."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.