ST PETERSBURG • Russian President Vladimir Putin said he likes guys like Mr Donald Trump and wants to build better relations with the United States President even though swirling controversies in Washington are making it difficult for him to govern.
"He is a straight person and a frank person," Mr Putin told foreign reporters at an economic forum in St Petersburg. "He can't be put in the same category as normal politicians. I see that as an advantage - he has a fresh set of eyes."
The praise from Mr Putin comes amid deepening US probes into whether Mr Trump or his associates had improper contact with Russia. Fired FBI director James Comey may testify in front of a Senate committee next week over whether the president urged him to drop the bureau's investigation.
The Senate panel also plans to hear from Mr Jared Kushner, Mr Trump's son-in-law and a senior aide. Mr Trump has continued to dismiss the probes, labelling them a "witch hunt".
Mr Putin fielded questions from a small group of media executives for about 90 minutes at the Konstantinovsky Palace yesterday before meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Mr Putin spoke on subjects ranging from Mr Trump and global security to sanctions and the domestic economy. He even dangled the possibility that "patriotic" Russians may have been involved in hacking election campaigns, though he denied any Kremlin role.
Mr Putin cautioned that it is hard for him to form a proper impression of the US President because they have only ever talked by phone. He and Mr Trump are due to meet for the first time at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg in July.
"How can you be friends with someone you don't know?" Mr Putin said. "I don't think he can call me a friend. We have never seen each other in person."
While Mr Trump, like other leaders, risks becoming overly constrained by the bureaucratic apparatus that surrounds him, Mr Putin said he has no plans to give the billionaire advice on governing. He said he was unsure how the relationship will develop, given "the ongoing political struggles" in Washington. Mr Putin repeated denials that Russia's government had anything to do with hacking elections, after US officials accused the Kremlin of interfering in the 2016 presidential vote to help Mr Trump defeat Mrs Hillary Clinton.
The Kremlin leader, who has been in power for 17 years and is widely expected to seek re-election next March, compared Russian hackers to free-spirited "artists" who see how their homeland is being maligned in the foreign press and decide to act on their own.
"If they're patriotically minded, they start making their contribution," he said.
Mr Putin, 64, once more accused the West of seeking to monopolise power and prevent the emergence of multiple centres of global influence by countering his country's efforts to assert itself on the world stage.
"The multi-polar world is becoming more of a reality and the monopolists don't like that," he said. "This is happening in no small part because of Russia's fight for its interests, its legitimate interests, I want to stress that."
On sanctions, he singled out Italy for praise, not only for being against the penalties imposed on Russia following the 2014 annexation of Crimea but also for opposing such measures in general as a brake on global growth.
Mr Putin said he is confident Russia's economy is recovering and his policymakers are working on stimulus plans to further boost growth, citing special economic zones and investment projects.