WASHINGTON – Russian President Vladimir Putin said he could not guarantee opposition leader Alexei Navalny would leave prison alive and denied ordering an assassination attempt on the anti-corruption crusader.
Putin's remarks, made in an interview with NBC News that aired in part on Monday, mark a fresh provocation from the Russian autocrat as he prepares to sit down with U.S. President Joe Biden for a high-stakes summit this week.
The two leaders will meet June 16 in Geneva, amid escalating tensions over the Kremlin's cyberattacks and election interference in the U.S. and Putin's efforts to stifle dissent inside Russia.
Navalny, an activist and one of Putin's fiercest critics, returned to Russia from Germany in January after recovering from poisoning with a nerve agent. He was detained shortly after his arrival in Moscow and sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for violating the terms of his probation while he was treated abroad.
Navalny initially went on a hunger strike, and his allies say he came close to death before ending his strike on the advice of doctors.
Asked if he could guarantee Navanly would leave prison alive, Putin claimed he had no say over the matter.
"Look, such decisions in this country are not made by the president," Putin said.
Pressed on Navalny's status, Putin said, "He will not be treated any worse than anybody else."
Biden said on Monday that it would be a "tragedy" if Navalny died in jail. "It would do nothing but hurt his relationships with the rest of the world, in my view, and with me," he said during a news conference in Brussels after meeting with NATO leaders.
Navalny's case is likely to be one of many flashpoints between Biden and Putin during Wednesday's meeting.
The U.S. intelligence community has determined with "high confidence" that Russia's Federal Security Service used the nerve agent Novichok to poison Navalny last August. The Biden administration imposed sanctions on Russia in the wake of that finding.
Putin has denied any involvement in the attack on Navalny, a position he repeated to NBC.
"We don't have this kind of habit of assassinating anybody," Putin said when pressed on Navalny's poisoning.
The Russian leader also flatly denied that Moscow was behind the recent SolarWinds cyberattack or that the Kremlin interfered in the 2020 presidential election. The Biden administration has sanctioned Russia over both of those matters.
"We have been accused of all kinds of things," Putin told NBC. "Election interference, cyberattacks and so on and so forth. And not once, not once, not one time, did they bother to produce any kind of evidence or proof. Just unfounded accusations."
Putin said the U.S.-Russia relationship has "deteriorated to what is the lowest point in recent years," but said he and Biden would be able to work together on issues of "mutual interest," such as arms control.
He shrugged off questions about Biden's affirmative answer, during an interview earlier this year, when he was asked if Putin was a "killer."
Biden did not back away from that characterization during Monday's news conference. "When I was asked that question on air, I answered it honestly, Biden said. "I don't think it matters a whole lot in terms of this next meeting we're about to have."
Putin said he works with people he disagrees with all the time. "People with whom I work ... we argue," the Russia leader said. "We are not bride and groom. We don't swear everlasting love and friendship."
He did, however, offer warm words for former President Donald Trump, who tried to cultivate close ties with Putin even as his advisers pressed for a tough approach to Russia.
"Mr. Trump is an extraordinary individual, talented individual. Otherwise he would not have become U.S. president," Putin said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vladimir Putin refuses to guarantee Alexei Navalny's safety in prison