- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2004

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin said yesterday he values his partnership with President Bush, but voiced suspicion that Washington might be behind what the Kremlin sees as efforts to isolate Russia — and even destabilize it.

With Russia already feeling hemmed in by U.S. bases in formerly Soviet Central Asia and U.S. military trainers in Georgia, Mr. Putin has taken issue with Western and particularly U.S. activism in Ukraine, where the presidential election that sparked a monthlong crisis goes into a third round this weekend.

His emotions came boiling to the surface during a three-hour Kremlin press conference.

Mr. Putin was asked for a reaction to an interview in which Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said that “for every superpower, Russia without Ukraine is better than Russia with Ukraine.”

“If we interpret this [statement by Mr. Kwasniewski] as striving to limit Russia’s ability to develop relations with its neighbors, then it means a desire to isolate the Russian Federation,” Mr. Putin said testily.

“I don’t think that is the goal of U.S. policy,” he said, but added that he would ask Mr. Bush about it in February when they meet in Slovakia. Mr. Putin then blamed the United States, without elaborating, for a policy on Chechnya “aimed at creating elements that would destabilize the Russian Federation.”

Mr. Putin also criticized the plan for Iraqi elections next month, which he said could not be fair while there is a U.S.-led military presence in the country.

“I have strong doubts that it’s possible to create conditions for democratic elections [in Iraq] when its entire territory is occupied by foreign troops,” he said.

He also criticized the U.S. presidential election last month, saying, “We are also not ecstatic about what’s going on in the United States.”

The comments were in line with Mr. Putin’s increasingly combative attitude toward the West and especially the United States. The Kremlin is convinced that the United States is behind a campaign to install Ukraine’s pro-Western opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, at the helm of the nation that Russia regards as its main satellite. Mr. Putin has backed Mr. Yushchenko’s opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in his bid for the presidential office.

Analysts close to the Kremlin have accused Poland of working in Ukraine at the behest of the United States, which they say is trying to deepen its influence in Europe and push Poland to the top ranks of the European Union.

Mr. Kwasniewski told reporters in Warsaw yesterday that Mr. Putin’s remarks were unfair and “a price that Poland and I must pay for our involvement in solving the political crisis in Ukraine.”

Mr. Putin said his personal relationship with Mr. Bush remained strong, but he has bristled at U.S. criticism of the Kremlin’s political restructuring proposals, which include an end to direct elections for governors. The steely-eyed former KGB officer tried to reassure a reporter that Russia would not return to the Soviet era.

“I don’t think we should move toward an authoritarian state, especially a Soviet-style authoritarian state. That wouldn’t help create favorable conditions for economic development and would limit the society’s ability to control the government. That would be excessive,” he said.

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