MOSCOW — The Kremlin firmly denied meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election Friday just hours before a dozen Russian military intelligence officers were indicted for alleged election-related hacking, a development that could cloud the upcoming U.S.-Russian summit.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's foreign affairs adviser reaffirmed Moscow's insistence that it did not try to influence the election as the U.S. Justice Department was preparing to announce charges against the 12 Russians.
"The Russian state has never interfered and has no intention of interfering in the U.S. elections," adviser Yuri Ushakov said while briefing reporters about the Monday summit in Helsinki between Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Russian intelligence officers are accused of hacking into the computer networks of the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign and then releasing stolen emails on the internet in the months before the election.
During the summit briefing, Ushakov challenged U.S. officials to offer proof to back the ongoing allegations of Russian interference, adding that Putin has proposed setting up a joint working group on cybersecurity to look into the issue.
"Opponents of better U.S.-Russia ties mustn't be allowed to endlessly speculate on that harmful and artificial subject," he said.
Ushakov described the summit as "the summer's main international event" and said it offered hope that Moscow and Washington could join efforts to tackle global challenges such as international terrorism and regional conflicts.
"The current tensions have no objective reasons," he said.
Russia-U.S. ties have plummeted to post-Cold War lows over the Russian annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, the war in Syria and the allegations that Russia meddled in the U.S. presidential race to help Trump win.
Asked if Putin and Trump might strike a deal that would lead to the withdrawal of Iranian forces and their proxies from southwestern Syria, Ushakov said Syria and the Iranian presence there would feature prominently on the summit agenda.
U.S. and Israel want Iran to leave Syria, while Russia has warned it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to withdraw fully from the country. A possible deal could see Syrian troops replacing Iranian forces and the proxy Hezbollah militia in the areas near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Amid intensive diplomatic maneuvering in the run-up to the summit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a senior adviser of the Iranian leader held talks with Putin this week.
Ushakov said the presidents themselves will decide the agenda for their talks, which are set to start with a one-on-one meeting and continue over breakfast in a broader format.
A final communique has not been drafted yet, and the summit could end without yielding a conclusive document, he said.