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Putin Says He'll Work With Whoever Wins U.S. Presidential Election

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Who does Vladimir Putin want to win the presidential election in the U.S.? The FBI says Russia is once again spreading lies on social media to benefit President Trump, as it did ahead of the 2016 election. But NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow that the Kremlin knows that Joe Biden might win.

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LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Everything was supposed to be so different when Donald Trump took over the presidency from Barack Obama in 2017. President Trump came into office saying he wanted to improve relations with Russia, and his inauguration was celebrated with champagne in Moscow. Now, with about three months left in Trump's term, bilateral relations are even worse than before, with ever-tightening U.S. sanctions and a key arms control treaty about to expire. Many Russians aren't so sure they'd like to see Trump's reelection, including Russia's top opinion-maker.

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DMITRY KISELYOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: On state television's flagship news show, anchor Dmitry Kiselyov used the first presidential debate to criticize America as a whole.

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KISELYOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: He said anybody who watched the acrimonious debate was left with a feeling of disgust. According to a poll conducted last month, only 23% of Russians are positive about Trump, while 43% are negative. Perhaps even more surprising, 55% of respondents said they were hearing about Biden for the very first time. The Kremlin, of course, knows Biden very well.

MASHA LIPMAN: I think the very fact that Biden was Obama's vice president already makes him not a friendly figure in Russia.

KIM: That's Masha Lipman, a political analyst in Moscow.

LIPMAN: Well, Obama looked down at Russia. In some of his statements, he certainly sounded not respectful. This caused this sense of offense on Russia's part. And Biden, of course, is seen as part of the same team.

KIM: Biden once said it would be bad for Russia if Putin ran for a third term as president. He's now in his fourth term and looking ahead to two more. Biden made disparaging remarks about Russia's role as a global power. And when Russia seized Ukrainian territory, Biden became Obama's point man on Ukraine.

Still, Putin knows Biden could very well be the next American president. Asked by a Russian TV reporter about his preferences, Putin tried to be diplomatic.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Trump has repeatedly called for better relations, which the Kremlin values, he said. But the U.S. president has been limited in his actions by a bipartisan consensus in Congress to contain Russia.

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PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: As for the Democratic candidate, Putin said, he uses a lot of anti-Russian language. While on the other hand, Biden has expressed interest in a new arms control treaty with Russia. In the end, Putin said, he'll work with whomever the American people choose. But Masha Lipman says the prospects for better relations are bleak.

LIPMAN: I don't think the Kremlin can expect any improvement in the U.S.-Russian relations, whatever the outcome of the election in November.

KIM: She says it's a lose-lose situation for Russia because if Biden becomes president, he may consolidate European allies against Moscow, while if Trump is reelected, his political opponents may pursue an even harsher policy toward Russia. The only thing that helps the Kremlin, Lipman says, is more polarization and turmoil in the United States.

LIPMAN: Turmoil means a United States weakened. This is what the Kremlin can actually benefit from - not an improvement on relations.

KIM: She says America's internal divisions are the Kremlin's best hope.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.