Days after the U.S. Justice Department formally accused 13 Russians and several companies of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman has reiterated the claim that the Russian state did not interfere.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov's remarks on February 19 were the first Kremlin comment on the charges announced by the office of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller three days earlier.
The indictment alleges that a wealthy businessman with close ties to Putin funded a so-called "troll farm" that sent agents to the United States, created fake social-media accounts that appeared to be U.S.-based, and used them to spread divisive messages.
Echoing findings released by U.S. intelligence agencies in January 2017, the Justice Department said the aims included undermining faith in U.S. democracy, disparaging candidate Hillary Clinton, and aiding her rival, Donald Trump, who won the election.
Speaking to reporters, Peskov said that "the indictment focuses on Russian citizens, but we have heard in announcements from Washington accusations about the involvement of the Russian state, the Kremlin, and the Russian government."
"There are no indications that the Russian state could have been involved in this. There are none and there cannot be any," Peskov said.
"Russia did not meddle, is not in the habit of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, and is not doing it now," he said.
Putin has repeatedly denied that there was a Russian government effort to meddle in the election, which the Republican Party candidate Trump won on November 8, 2016, in tight race against Democratic Party nominee Clinton.
In their announcement in January 2017, U.S. intelligence agencies said that Putin had personally "ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election."
Kremlin critics argue that the most well-known of the 13 Russians indicted, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has ties to Putin and the state that undermine Russia's assertions that the government was not involved in any meddling.
Prigozhin -- accused of funneling money into the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, which is also named in the charges -- has been called "Putin's chef" because his catering business has organized banquets for Putin and others in the ruling elite.
The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Prigozhin in 2016 for allegedly providing material support to senior Russian government officials, saying he had extensive business dealings with the Russian Defense Ministry.
An official corporate database indicates that companies he owns or controls have won lucrative state contracts for the Russian presidential administration, parliament, and the Defense Ministry, the Reuters news agency reported.
According to Reuters, the database shows that one of his companies won contracts worth about $8 billion between 2011 and 2017 involving food service for state-run educational institutions.
In addition to the special counsel, three congressional panels are investigating Moscow's alleged meddling and whether associates of Trump colluded with Russia.
The U.S. indictment, which was issued by a grand jury and released by Mueller's office, said that the Russian entities in question began interfering in U.S. political processes as early as 2014.
it said that some of those charged posed as Americans and communicated with people associated with Trump's campaign, adding that those people were "unwitting" in their communications with the Russians.
In comments to reporters after the indictment's release, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said that there was no indication that the Russian meddling affected the outcome of the election.
Trump, who has downplayed the ongoing criminal and congressional investigations as well as mounting evidence about Russian interference, said the indictment, and Rosenstein's remarks, were further vindication.
"Russia started [its] anti-U.S. campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong -- no collusion!" he wrote on Twitter.
Mueller's office has handed down two previous indictments, one of them for Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and the probe has resulted in two guilty pleas, including one by Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and dpa