MOSCOW (AP) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin says it would be "impossible" to fire Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko for being accused of covering up doping by Russian athletes.
Mutko was Russia's sports minister during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, where Russia allegedly operated a widespread doping program, including switching tainted samples for clean ones at the Olympic drug-testing laboratory. Russia rejects any suggestion its government ever covered up for dopers.
Mutko has become deputy prime minister with a brief to oversee construction projects.
Russia also rejects the allegations against Mutko, and Putin implied keeping him in the government was an issue of loyalty.
"We know the attacks made against him in connection with the doping scandal and in these conditions it's impossible to put him into retirement," Putin said in a televised phone-in on Thursday. "(He has) very good potential. Let him work."
Putin was responding to a caller who joked Mutko's picture should be displayed on ships because his career appeared unsinkable.
Mutko was banned from the Olympics for life in December after an International Olympic Committee investigation ruled his ministry was responsible for failing to stop doping abuses. While the IOC investigation didn't directly accuse him of wrongdoing, it found his former deputy Yuri Nagornykh must have known a cover-up was underway because he was copied into incriminating email messages.
In the last year, Mutko has stepped down from roles overseeing government sports policy and the World Cup organizing committee, after having managed most of Russia's preparations for the tournament. He lost a FIFA council seat after soccer's world governing body ruled his government jobs meant a conflict of interest.
Mutko also stepped aside temporarily as Russian Football Union president in December but has continued to exercise significant influence over the organization and enjoy a prominent role at national team games.