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Putin offers ex-FBI chief Comey political asylum in acerbic broadside

Russian president Vladimir Putin has scoffed at former FBI director James Comey's disclosure of conversations with Donald Trump, saying the move had made Mr Comey eligible for political asylum in Russia.

Mr Putin, speaking during a live call-in show that lasted four hours, likened Mr Comey to NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has been living in Russia since being granted asylum in 2013.

The Russian leader said: "It looks weird when the chief of a security agency records his conversation with the commander-in-chief and then hands it over to media via his friend.

"What's the difference then between the FBI director and Mr Snowden? In that case, he's more of a rights campaigner defending a certain position than the security agency chief."

On an acerbic note, Mr Putin added that if Mr Comey "faces some sort of persecution in connection with that, we are ready to offer political asylum in Russia to him, as well".

The remarks reflected Mr Putin's annoyance with the congressional and FBI investigations into links between Trump campaign officials and Russia, which have haunted the White House, shattering Moscow's hopes for improving ties with Washington.

The Russian president reaffirmed his denial of meddling in last year's US election, saying that Russia has openly expressed its views and has not engaged in any covert activities.

He also attempted to turn the tables on the US, saying it has sought to influence Russian elections by funding NGOs as part of its aspirations for global domination.

"Turn a globe and point your finger anywhere, you will find American interests and interference there," the Russian leader said.

On a more conciliatory note, Mr Putin added that Russia still hopes for the normalisation of ties with the US.

He said Moscow and Washington could co-operate in efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and pool efforts to tackle North Korean's nuclear ambitions.

He said the two countries could also co-operate in dealing with global poverty and efforts to prevent climate change, adding that Moscow also hopes that the US could play a "constructive role" in helping settle the Ukrainian crisis.

During a tightly choreographed marathon TV show, an annual affair that lasts hours, Mr Putin said Russia has climbed out of recession despite continuing western sanctions.

He added that the restrictions have forced the country to "switch on our brains" to reduce dependence on energy exports.

He deplored the US Senate's decision to impose new sanctions on Russia as a reflection of Western efforts to "contain" Russia, but insisted that the measures have only made the country stronger.

The Republican-led Senate voted to punish Moscow for interfering in the 2016 election by approving a wide-ranging package of sanctions which target key sectors of Russia's economy and individuals who carried out cyber attacks.

The Senate bill follows up on several rounds of other sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support for pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

Mr Putin argued that Russia has done nothing to warrant the Senate's move, calling it an "evidence of a continuing internal political struggle in the US".

The Russian leader claimed that the "crisis is over," pointing at modest economic growth over the past nine months, low inflation and rising currency reserves.

He recognised, however, that people's incomes have fallen and 13.5% of Russians now live below the poverty line, currently equivalent to £133 per month.

Most of the questions during the show were about low salaries, decrepit housing, potholed roads, failing health care and other social problems

The 64-year-old Russian leader is widely expected to seek another six-year term in the March 2018 vote, but he has not yet declared his intentions. Mr Putin served two presidential terms in 2000-2008 before shifting into the prime minister's seat for four years because of term limits. He was re-elected as president in 2012.

Asked if he was grooming a successor, Mr Putin answered that he has some personal preferences, but it is up to the voters to decide who will be Russia's next leader.

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