MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused the United States of inventing doping allegations against Russian athletes to influence next year's presidential election, which he is widely expected to contest and win.
"In response to our alleged interference in their election, they want to create problems for the election of the president of Russia," Putin said in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk.
Putin has not said whether he will contest the March election but few analysts say they believe he will pass up the chance to extend his Kremlin term to 2024.
"Here is what worries me: the Olympics start in February, and when are our presidential elections? In March," Putin told workers during a visit to a factory.
"There is a strong suspicion that this is all happening in order to create a situation useful to some, one of disappointment for sports followers and sportsmen in which the state allegedly participated in violations," he said.
Putin spoke ahead of a trip to Vietnam, where he will take part in an APEC summit and is expected to meet US President Donald Trump.
Relations between Russia and the United States have plummeted as a Washington probe has accused Trump's former campaign aides of secretly meeting Kremlin-connected officials.
Russia has denied allegations of interfering in the US election last year that brought Trump to power.
- 'Declaration of war' -
Putin spoke after the Russian Cross-Country Ski Federation announced on Thursday that four Russian cross-country skiers were found guilty of doping by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The federation said that Alexei Petukhov, Evgenia Shapovalova, Maxim Vylegzhanin and Yulia Ivanova were stripped of their medals won in Sochi in 2014 and banned for life from the Olympics.
Petukhov told the Russian sports news agency R-Sport that the decision was a "declaration of war".
"I will fight until the end. This is a violation of all human rights," Petukhov said.
Last week, Russian cross-country skier Alexander Legkov was stripped of his Olympic 50-kilometre title after the IOC found him guilty of doping.
Putin said last month the United States had put indirect pressure on the IOC to block Russia from the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
An explosive 2016 report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency alleged state-sponsored doping in Russia from 2011 to 2015.
The investigation said the cheating peaked at the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Russian secret agents engineered an elaborate system of doping.
Russia has denied any state-sponsored system of doping.
"Russia never had and, I hope, will never have a system of state doping of which we are being accused," Putin said Thursday.