- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

2:51 p.m.

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin today rejected Western criticism that he is using his energy policies as a weapon, denounced the deployment of U.S. anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe and said he didn’t believe in conspiracy theories about the poisoning death of a former KGB officer.

Addressing 1,200 reporters at his annual press conference, Mr. Putin rejected accusations in the West that price disputes with Ukraine and Belarus — which triggered interruptions of Russian oil and gas deliveries to Western Europe — amounted to using Moscow’s vast energy reserves to achieve political aims.

“The thesis is being thrust on us all the time that Russia is using its old and new economic efforts to attain foreign political goals. It is not so,” Mr. Putin said. The price increases, he said, are driven simply by Russia’s desire to get fair prices for its gas and oil after years of providing energy at below-market prices to former Soviet neighbors.

“We’re not obliged to subsidize the economies of other countries,” Mr. Putin said. “Nobody does that, so why are they demanding it of us?”

Mr. Putin uses the annual press conference, televised live on two nationwide state-run channels, to burnish his image domestically as a competent, caring president in control of a resurgent country with a growing economy and global clout.

However, Moscow’s international reputation has been battered by the killings late last year of two critics: investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London. The latter, in a deathbed statement, blamed Mr. Putin for his radiation poisoning.

Asked about Mr. Litvinenko, who died after someone slipped him radioactive polonium 210 in London in the fall, Mr. Putin described him as a figure of little importance.

“Before being fired from the Federal Security Service, Alexander Litvinenko served in the escort troops and had no access to state secrets,” said Mr. Putin, himself a former KGB officer.

Mr. Litvinenko accused Mr. Putin’s Kremlin of involvement in his poisoning and the death of Miss Politkovskaya — which Russian officials deny. In Russia, officials and journalists seem to favor the theory that the killings were committed as part of a plot to discredit the Kremlin.

Mr. Putin endorsed neither theory. “Openly speaking, I don’t believe in the conspiracy thesis,” he said.

He declined to speculate about how Mr. Litvinenko came to swallow the rare radioactive poison that killed him. “Only the investigation can answer that,” he said.

Mr. Putin rejected Washington’s claim that possible deployment of U.S. missile defense sites in central Europe was intended to counter threats posed by Iran and warned that Russia would take countermeasures.

U.S. officials have said that proposed missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic would be designed to intercept a missile attack by Iran on Eastern Europe and would not affect Russia’s security.

However, Mr. Putin said the Kremlin did not trust that claim.

“Our military experts don’t believe that the missile defense systems to be deployed in Eastern Europe are intended to counter the threat from Iran or some terrorists,” Mr. Putin said, adding that Tehran does not have missiles capable of reaching Europe.

“We consider such claims unfounded, and, naturally, that directly concerns us and will cause a relevant reaction. That reaction will be asymmetrical, but it will be highly efficient,” Mr. Putin said.

He said that Russia’s latest Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles are capable of penetrating missile defenses and added that more effective weapons systems are being developed.

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