As tensions build between the U.S. and the Kremlin over election-related hacking, President Barack Obama on Friday dismissed Russia as a “smaller,” “weaker country” that does not “produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms,” but warned that it could pose a serious threat if Americans “abandon” democratic values.
Responding to intelligence reports that Russia sought to disrupt the presidential election through cyberattacks, Obama was harsh in his assessment of the Kremlin: “The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us,” he said at his end-of-year press conference on Friday. “They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate.”
But the president also suggested that Russia and its strongman president, Vladimir Putin, could stand to “weaken” the U.S. if it loosens its commitment to democracy.
“They can impact us if we lose track of who we are,” Obama said. “They can impact us if we abandon our values.”
He then listed them: “Mr. Putin can weaken us just like he’s trying to weaken Europe if we start buying into notions that it’s okay to intimidate the press. Or lock up dissidents. Or discriminate against people because of their faith or what they look like.”
The Friday news conference was dominated in part by discussion of Russia, which intelligence officials blame for hacks into Democratic Party officials that embarrassed Hillary Clinton’s campaign throughout the election. Without offering any counter-evidence, President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to accept that Russia was behind the cyberattacks, and he similarly denies reports that the Kremlin was specifically trying to tilt the election in his favor.
On Friday, Obama warned about the issue becoming partisan and specifically took aim at Republicans for their views on Putin, citing polling data that shows that the autocrat’s approval rating among them has increased starkly.
“Over a third of Republican voters approve of Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB,” the president said. “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave.”
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