MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin called himself the world's only "absolute
and pure democrat" in an interview published Monday, and launched scathing
attacks on the US and Europe ahead of this week's Group of Eight summit.
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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a Cabinet
meeting in the Moscow Kremlin, Monday, June 4, 2007. [AP]
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
To the many Westerners who say he has rolled back Russia's
democratic reforms, Putin responded with the 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 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 US 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
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
"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
Russia refuses to turn over Lugovoi, saying its
constitution forbids extradition of Russian citizens to face prosecution abroad.
Putin called Britain's demand "stupidity."