Putin attacks West ahead of G-8 summit
By JIM HEINTZ, Associated Press Write Mon Jun 4, 3:44 PM ET
MOSCOW - President
At the same time, the 54-year-old Putin hinted that he may not be ready to leave the public stage after all when his second term expires next year. "I am far from pension age and it would be absurd just to sit at home doing nothing," he told a group of reporters invited to dinner over the weekend.
Despite Russia's agreement last month to tone down the rhetoric, Putin's statements exposed vast gaps between Russia and the West ahead of this week's Group of Eight summit. He called Britain's decision to demand the extradition of the man suspected of killing former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko with a radioactive poison an act of "stupidity."
The interview touched on much that the rest of the world finds disturbing about Putin's Russia: the backsliding on democracy, the increasing assertion of military power, the general perception of a leader who feels immune to international criticism.
To the many Westerners who say he has rolled back Russia's democratic reforms, Putin responded with the startling assertion that he is the world's one true champion of democracy.
"I am an absolute and pure democrat," Putin said. "But you know what the misfortune is? Not even a misfortune but a real tragedy? It's that I am alone, there simply aren't others like this in the world."
The transcript noted that Putin laughed when making that comment, suggesting he was joking. A few moments later he added: "After the death of Mahatma Gandhi, there's nobody to talk to."
Sandwiched between his acid criticisms and ironic assertions was a brief but brutal criticism of the West.
"We look at what has been created in North America — horror: torture, homelessness, Guantanamo, detention without courts or investigation," he said.
"You see what's going on in Europe: harsh treatment of demonstrators, the use of rubber bullets, tear gas in one capital, the killing of demonstrators in the streets in another," he added, in an apparent reference to the death of an ethnic Russian in the Estonian capital during protests over the removal of a Soviet-era war memorial.
Rather than try to soothe nerves before the G-8 summit in Germany, Putin repeated, and even amplified, recent Kremlin criticism of the United States — including his allegation in February that the United States was engaging in a "hyper-use of power," and Russian officials' denunciation of purported Western attempts to destabilize Russia by funding pro-democracy groups.
The Russian president's comments came despite last month's agreement between Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to tone down the rhetoric on both sides.
Much of the toughest talk from the Kremlin has focused on U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system in Europe, which Washington insists is aimed at preventing attacks by rogue states such as Iran and North Korea rather than Russia.
Putin renewed the verbal offensive in his weekend interview, in chilling comments that evoked the balance-of-terror language of the Cold War.
"We are being told the anti-missile defense system is targeted against something that does not exist. Doesn't it seem funny to you, to say the least?" a clearly irritated Putin said.
"If a part of the strategic nuclear potential of the United States appears in Europe and, in the opinion of our military specialists will threaten us, then we will have to take appropriate steps in response," Putin said. "What kind of steps? We will have to have new targets in Europe."
These could be targeted with "ballistic or cruise missiles or maybe a completely new system."
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, asked aboard Air Force One about Putin's comments on the missile shield, said there has been "some escalation in the rhetoric."
"We think that that is not helpful. We would like to have a constructive dialogue with Russia on this issue. We have had it in the past," Hadley said.
Russia's relations with the West also are troubled by its refusal to turn over Andrei Lugovoi, the man whom Britain says it has enough evidence to charge in last year's fatal poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. The case raised fears that Moscow has returned to its Soviet-era practice of killing dissidents abroad.
Russia refuses to turn over Lugovoi, saying its constitution forbids extradition of Russian citizens to face prosecution abroad. Putin called Britain's demand "stupidity."
"If they didn't know (about the constitutional prohibition) it's a low level of competence and thus we have doubts about what they're doing there," Putin said. "And if they knew and did this, it's simply politics.
"This is bad and that is bad — from all sides it's just stupidity," Putin said.
Putin, less than a year away from the end of his second and final four-year term in office, told reporters he believes Russian presidents should serve longer terms. But he did not say whether he believes his current term should be extended.
Over the years, he has consistently rejected suggestions that the constitution be amended to allow him to seek a third consecutive term, and during his annual address to parliament in April said it would be his last as president.
But Putin's ambiguous comments seemed certain to feed speculation that he would seek to stay in power beyond the spring of 2008. At the very least, his suggestion could discourage other G-8 leaders from treating him as a lame duck.
"Four years is a fairly short time," Putin said. "It seems to me that in today's Russia five, six or seven years would be acceptable, but the number of terms still should be limited."
Russia is scheduled to hold presidential elections in March. Putin, who was re-elected in 2004 with more than 71 percent of the vote, has presided over one of the most prosperous periods in Russian history and enjoys sky-high approval ratings.
Putin has not publicly said whom he would prefer to see succeed him — an endorsement that would carry immense influence, since that candidate could instantly expect the support of the Kremlin and its allies.
Some leaders in post-Soviet states have called referendums to approve extension of their terms. But these moves have been widely criticized abroad as naked power-grabs.
While Putin seems increasingly to scorn his Western critics, the move would create an uproar that he might not want to face.