- Associated Press - Thursday, September 6, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin says Russia can work with Mitt Romney if he’s elected U.S. president, even though Mr. Romney has called Russia the United States’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”

In an interview broadcast Thursday by the Kremlin-funded Russia Today TV channel, Mr. Putin spoke directly about the Republican challenger to President Obama.

“We’ll work with whichever president is elected by the American people, but our effort will be only as efficient as our partners will want it to be,” Mr. Putin said.

Mr. Putin expressed concern about how a Romney presidency would affect the long-running dispute over U.S.-led NATO plans to place elements of a missile-defense system in Europe. Russia contends the system could undermine its own defenses.

Mr. Putin said that if Mr. Romney is elected, “the missile defense system will definitely be directed against Russia.”

The wide-ranging interview showed Mr. Putin‘s acerbic and combative side, particularly on the issue of the two-year prison sentence imposed last month on three members of a provocateur punk band for their “punk prayer” prank in Moscow’s main cathedral entreating the Virgin Mary to save Russia from Mr. Putin.

Their conviction brought widespread criticism of Russia for stifling opposition and free speech.

Mr. Putin briefly sparred with the English-speaking interviewer over how the band’s name could be translated into Russian, saying, “I think you wouldn’t do it because it sounds too obscene, even in English.”

Mr. Putin also vigorously defended Russia’s stance on the escalating civil war in Syria.

Russia has come under strong criticism in the West for blocking U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, which is fighting an increasingly vigorous armed opposition. Activists now put the death toll from the uprising that began in March 2011 at between 23,000 and 26,000.

Russia has said its policy is not aimed at supporting Mr. Assad, and Mr. Putin in the interview gave strong indication that Moscow may have written off the Syrian leader.

“We realize that this country needs a change,” he said. “But this doesn’t mean that change should come with bloodshed.”

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