(CNN)Jewish groups are criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin after he suggested Russian minorities such as Jews or Tatars could be behind alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
Putin: Maybe Jews or minorities behind US election interference
Putin was speaking with NBC News' Megyn Kelly as she repeatedly asked him about Russian involvement in the election. Last month, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for allegedly meddling in the 2016 presidential election, charging them with conspiracy to defraud the United States.
At one point, Putin suggested that other ethnic groups may have been involved.
"Maybe they're not even Russians," he said. "Maybe they're Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship. Even that needs to be checked. Maybe they have dual citizenship. Or maybe a green card. Maybe it was the Americans who paid them for this work. How do you know? I don't know."
Putin's comment caught the attention of the Anti-Defamation League.
"President Putin bizarrely has resorted to the blame game by pointing the finger at Jews and other minorities in his country," said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, in a statement. "It is deeply disturbing to see the Russian president giving new life to classic anti-Semitic stereotypes that have plagued his country for hundreds of years."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut tweeted: "Repulsive Putin remark deserves to be denounced, soundly and promptly, by world leaders."
The American Jewish Committee tweeted: "President Putin suggesting that Russian Federation minorities, be they Ukrainian, Tatar, or Jewish, were behind U.S. election meddling is eerily reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He should clarify his comments at the earliest opportunity."
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion refers to a work of fiction published in a Russian newspaper in 1903, purporting to be documents showing a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. The falsified papers were used as propaganda and influenced Adolf Hitler, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
For hundreds of years, Jews living in Russia were persecuted under various czars, and their livelihoods and residences were limited. In Soviet times, Jews were recognized as a national group, but practicing their religion was strongly discouraged. Under Joseph Stalin, Jews in the Soviet Union faced suppression and many were sent to gulags. After the Soviet Union fell, most restrictions on Jews were lifted, according to the World Jewish Congress.
Putin's comments were also directed at other minority groups in Russia: the Ukrainians and Tatars.
From the 18th to 20th centuries, Russia and the Soviet Union carried out a program of Russification to discourage the Ukrainian national identity. Ukraine declared it independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union fell. The seizure of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 resulted in violent conflict between the two countries.
Tatars are a Muslim minority group that have lived in Russia for centuries. The Crimean Tatars were targeted by Stalin in 1945, who accused them of collaborating with the Nazis. The Crimean autonomous Soviet republic was disbanded under Stalin and many were deported to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.