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“No country in the world would permit interference from abroad in its internal political life,” Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s press spokesman, said in a teleconference with Western reporters last month.

“We were told that NATO had no interest in expanding to our borders after the end of the Soviet Union, and now we see that is not the case,” he added.

Unwelcome criticism

Russian officials recall an address by Vice President Dick Cheney in Lithuania on the eve of the 2006 G-8 summit, which contained sharp criticisms of Russian policy.

Mr. Cheney accused Moscow of using its vast oil and gas reserves as “tools of intimidation and blackmail,” and slammed Russian interference in the states along its border.

“No one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbor or interfere with democratic movements,” Mr. Cheney said.

U.S. and European analysts saw the addition of Poland, the Czech Republic and other Eastern and Central European nations to NATO as a milestone marking the end of divisions on the continent. The same process was read very differently in Moscow.

Russia has long resented NATO enlargement far more than is appreciated by policy-makers in Washington,” said William C. Potter, director of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies in Monterey, Calif.

“The recent flurry of activity surrounding U.S. efforts to build new anti-missile sites in Eastern Europe was the last straw for Putin and his advisers,” Mr. Potter said in a recent interview with the International Affairs Forum.

Rising Kremlin self-confidence is fueled by Moscow’s belief that U.S. problems in Iraq and Mr. Bush’s personal unpopularity across much of Europe present an opportunity for Russia, according to Pavel K. Baev, an analyst on Russian politics for the Washington-based Eurasia Daily Monitor and a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

“The looming disaster [in Iraq] is perceived in Moscow as a drain on U.S. leadership, and the erosion of Western unity is seen as an expansion of Russia’s space for maneuvering,” Mr. Baev said.

Trouble on the border

The Kremlin has also strongly objected to what it sees as U.S. and Western “meddling” in former Soviet states and allies along its borders, Russia’s famous “near abroad.”

Washington and Moscow have waged a fierce diplomatic battle for allies and oil pipelines in Central Asia. The 2004-2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which involved openly pro-Russian and pro-Western factions battling for power, crystallized for many Russians the battle for influence in its strategic back yard.

Russian assertiveness has not been limited to the United States. A mid-May summit of Russia and the European Union was widely seen as a disaster, with Mr. Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the current EU president, unable to agree on even a bland communique at the end.

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