(CNN)A former US ambassador to Russia said Russian President Vladimir Putin was “probably joyful” about — and may have enabled — the conspiracy theory circulated by some Republicans that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 elections.
“He’s probably joyful that he has the world talking about something he may have been behind,” former Ambassador Jon Huntsman told The Associated Press of Putin in an interview published Friday. “That’s the way they operate in Moscow, to try to sow seeds of discontent between the United States and Kiev.”
The criticism from Huntsman, President Donald Trump’s own nominee, comes as Trump and several of his allies have propagated the conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election as the impeachment inquiry into the President intensifies.
Huntsman, who resigned in October, is not alone in pushing back on the Ukraine hypothesis. At least nine witnesses in the impeachment inquiry testified that claims of Ukrainian meddling in 2016 were fabricated by the Russians or unsupported by evidence. Others said they weren’t aware of anything to corroborate these claims.
But the unsupported assertions of Ukrainian involvement are widespread. House Republicans’ report analyzing impeachment inquiry evidence thus far asserted that “senior Ukrainian government officials worked in 2016 to support Secretary (Hillary) Clinton.” Claims of such a top-down effort by the Ukrainian government to defeat Trump are not supported by the evidence.
The Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee had looked into allegations that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election and found no evidence to support the claims, sources familiar with the matter told CNN this week. Sources also told CNN that no US intelligence agency has ever produced a product accusing the Ukrainian government of interfering in the 2016 US election.
Putin has been linked to efforts to stymie US-Ukraine cooperation before. The Washington Post reported in October that Trump’s urging of Ukraine’s President to investigate political rivals coincided with Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban pushing a disparaging view of the country to Trump.
When Trump asked Putin during a May call for his impressions of the new Ukrainian President, Putin said he had yet to speak with him but criticized him as a former comedian linked to a Kremlin-hated oligarch, a Western official familiar with the conversation told the Post. Trump and Putin also met during the G20 summit in June and spoke days after Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
CNN’s Tara Subramaniam, Marshall Cohen and Jake Tapper contributed to this report.