The Russian president also insists he wants to co-operate with the US in dealing with Islamic State, and wants Ukraine peace agreement to succeed
Russia fought honestly for the right to host the 2018 World Cup and the decision should not be called into question, Vladimir Putin has declared.
Swiss judicial authorities are investigating the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar as part of a far-reaching corruption scandal that has also raised questions about the 2010 event in South Africa.
“We fought in an honest manner [for the tournament] and we won. We do not think the decision should be questioned,” Putin told journalists on the sidelines of an investment forum in Saint Petersburg.
“We were ready and that’s what convinced Fifa. The stadium construction has already started.
The head of Fifa’s auditing and compliance committee, Domenico Scala, this month warned Russia and Qatar could lose the right to host the the 2018 and 2022 World Cups if evidence was found of corruption in the bidding process.
Putin said Russia supported the corruption inquiry currently unfolding at world football’s governing body but said it was “up to a court to decide if someone was guilty”.
The president said no evidence had been found of any corruption.
“If anyone has evidence, let them present it,” he said. “We won in a fair fight and are going to host the World Cup.”
Putin also insisted Russia wanted to co-operate with Washington and its allies in dealing with the threat posed by Islamic State and other global challenges as he tried to allay investors’ fears over the country’s course.
Putin blamed the United States for ignoring Russia’s interests and trying to enforce its will on others but he sent conciliatory signals, saying Moscow wanted a quick settlement to the Iranian nuclear standoff and a peaceful political transition in Syria.
Russia wanted February’s Ukraine peace agreement to succeed, he said. Fighting there would stop once Ukraine provided broader rights to its eastern regions, gave amnesty to the rebels and called local elections.
The annual event, intended to burnish Russia’s image before global investors, was tarnished by the freezing of Russian accounts in France and Belgium on Thursday as part of an effort to enforce a $50bn judgment to compensate shareholders of the now-defunct Yukos oil company. Putin sought to downplay the freeze and said Russia would contest it. He argued the arbitration court in The Hague, Netherlands, which issued the ruling in 2014, does not have jurisdiction over Russia.
The court ruled Russia must pay damages to shareholders in the oil company, which was dismantled in a politically driven onslaught that saw its chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, sentenced to 10 years in prison.
EU and US sanctions over Ukraine have helped push Russia’s economy into recession and cut investment and imports dramatically. Putin, however, argued on Friday the Russian economy was on the path to recovery and the west hurt itself by imposing the sanctions.
Asked about the downing of a Malaysia Airlines plane over eastern Ukraine last July that killed all 298 people on board and triggered the toughening of western sanctions, Putin said it was necessary to wait for the conclusions of the Dutch Safety Board investigation into the crash.
Controversy continues over who downed the airliner. Ukraine and the west suspect it was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile fired by Russian soldiers or Russia-backed separatist rebels fighting in the area. Russia denies this. Putin referred to an unofficial report alleging the damage to the Malaysian airliner could have been inflicted by a missile launched from the area held by Ukrainian forces at the time.
Putin’s speech on the economy lacked any engagement on his part or specific proposals to turn around the economy. A large number of Russian and foreign investors in the audience were reading news or emails on their smartphones as Putin delivered a speech in which he did not address the severe crisis businesses in Russia are facing.
In contrast to the economy speech, Putin was much more animated while responding to questions about foreign policy.
His emphasis on foreign affairs has reflected the way the Kremlin has been running Russia since the Ukrainian conflict began. Critics have blamed Putin for sacrificing the country’s economic growth for geopolitical ends such as the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
David Iakobashvili, founder of Russia’s once-largest beverage company and head of a Russia-US business council, said businessmen have got used to the fact Putin seems to prioritise foreign policy goals over domestic development.
“It’s very clear today that geopolitics is more important from his point of view,” he said. “But … we shall adapt to whatever environment has been presented by the government and act accordingly.”
Addressing the forum, Putin argued Russia wants February’s peace deal for Ukraine to succeed. He said Russia was exerting pressure on the rebels to abide by the agreement and urged the US to encourage Kiev to comply.
Ukraine and the west have accused Russia of breaking the peace deal by supporting the rebels with troops and weapons. Moscow denies this.
Commenting on the accusations, Putin said the rebels are defending themselves against the Ukrainian military. He added that “once an attempt is made to solve the problem by political means, those weapons will be gone”.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby called on Russia to fully implement February’s ceasefire agreement in Ukraine and remove heavy weapons from the country.
As for Putin linking the arms to a political solution, Kirby said it was “difficult to have a political solution when you’ve still got thousands of combined Russian separatist forces inside Ukraine fomenting violence and instability, and violating the agreement that they signed up to.”
Putin used the investment conference as yet another opportunity to blame the US and the European Union for triggering the Ukrainian crisis by refusing to take into account what he described as Russia’s legitimate interests.
“They have pushed us back to the line beyond which we can’t retreat,” he said. “Russia isn’t seeking hegemony or some ephemeral superpower status.”
Putin said Russia wants to co-operate with the west in tackling global threats and challenges – including Islamic State, calling the extremist group an “absolute evil” that requires stronger joint efforts to combat.
Putin also said Russia wants a deal ending the standoff over the Iranian nuclear program to be signed as planned before the end of June, but cautioned against putting “unfulfillable” demands upon Tehran.
And he also voiced readiness to encourage the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to discuss a peaceful political transition. He explained Moscow’s backing for the Syrian ruler was to prevent the victory of radical forces who would begin a reign of terror.
“We are ready to work with the president to ensure political transformation, so that all Syrians have access to instruments of power,” he said.