MOSCOW: Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks with US NBC news network anchor Megyn Kelly at the Kremlin on March 1. - AFP

WASHINGTON: Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested in a US television interview that Ukrainians, Tatars or Jews could have meddled in the 2016 US presidential election - but not the Kremlin. "Why have you decided the Russian authorities, myself included, gave anybody permission to do this?" Putin asked in the often-combative interview with NBC television.


The leading US intelligence agencies concluded last year that Putin personally directed an intelligence effort to influence the 2016 US presidential election to undermine Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign and boost Republican Donald Trump. Last month US Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is conducting a widespread probe into Russia's role in the campaign, indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for allegedly backing Trump, maligning Clinton, and engaging in other election interference.


"So what if they're Russians?" Putin said of the allegations, according to transcripts of the NBC interview released late Friday. "There are 146 million Russians. So what?... I don't care. I couldn't care less... They do not represent the interests of the Russian state. Maybe," Putin said, "they are not even Russians but Ukrainians, Tatars or Jews, but with Russian citizenship, which should also be checked; maybe they have dual citizenship or a green card; maybe the US paid them for this. How can you know that? I do not know either."


Despite Mueller's 37-page indictment, Putin said he has seen no evidence thus far that the alleged meddling broke any laws. "We in Russia cannot prosecute anyone as long as they have not violated Russian law... At least send us a piece of paper... Give us a document.  Give us an official request. And we'll take a look at it." Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion with Moscow, and Putin laughed at the mere suggestion. "Could anyone really believe that Russia, thousands of miles away...  influenced the outcome of the election? Doesn't that sound ridiculous even to you?" Putin asked.


On announcing the indictment on the Russians, US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the document made no judgment on whether the alleged Russian propaganda campaign altered the election outcome. "It's not our goal to interfere. We do not see what goal we would accomplish by interfering. There's no goal," Putin said. US intelligence chiefs last month said Russia still seeks to meddle in US politics, posing a threat to mid-term congressional elections in November, and the 2020 presidential election.


Trump has acknowledged that Russia and "other countries" meddled in the 2016 election, but insisted it had "no impact on our votes whatsoever" and vowed to make sure it wouldn't happen again. "We'll counteract whatever they do. We'll counteract it very strongly. You don't want your system of votes to be compromised in any way," Trump said Tuesday. "And we won't allow that to happen."


Russian efforts however are said to go far beyond US elections: US General Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of NATO forces in Europe, told US lawmakers on Thursday that Russia is working to break up the NATO alliance partly through its online operations spreading false information. "Russia is carrying out a campaign of destabilization to change the international order, fracture NATO and undermine US leadership around the world," Scaparrotti told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. - AFP