MOSCOW Vladimir Putin said Russia was alarmed by the "growing threat" of an attack on Iran over its nuclear programme and warned that the consequences would be "truly catastrophic."
In an article on foreign policy written before a March 4 presidential election he is almost certain to win, Russia's prime minister also warned Western and Arab nations against military intervention in Syria and accused Washington of meddling in the politics of Russia and its neighbours.
Talking tough as he prepares to return to Kremlin while facing the biggest protests of his 12-year rule and warily watching upheaval in the Middle East, Putin said U.S. and NATO intervention abroad was undermining global stability, not buttressing it.
"I very much hope the United States and other countries ... do not try to set a military scenario in motion in Syria without sanction from the U.N. Security Council," Putin said in the article published on Monday in the newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti.
Putin made clear Russia, which along with China blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at ending a government crackdown on opponents in Syria, would use such levers to block U.S. action when it sees fit.
NATO nations should not form coalitions to launch military intervention when they lack Security Council support, he added.
"Nobody has the right to take for himself the prerogatives and authorities of the United Nations, especially when it comes to using force in relation to sovereign states," Putin said.
Part of a series he has published almost weekly in the two months ahead of the election, the lengthy article included criticism of the United States familiar from his 2000-2008 presidency and his campaign to reclaim Russia's top office, which has fueled protests by tens of thousands who want change.
Putin said relations were marred by "regular U.S. attempts to conduct 'political engineering', including in regions that are traditionally important to us, and in election campaigns in Russia" - a reference to his claims the United States has supported government opponents in Russia and ex-Soviet states.
Further afield, Putin suggested NATO had a "itch" for war and that the United States was trying to guarantee its security at the expense of others.
"A series of armed conflicts justified by humanitarian aims is undermining the principle, hallowed by the centuries, of state sovereignty," Putin said, suggesting the United States and NATO were creating a "moral and legal vacuum" in world affairs.
In Russia and abroad, he signaled, Moscow will push back when it believes the West is pressing its own agenda "under cover of humanitarian slogans," as he argues happened when NATO helped rebels oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi last year.
"Nobody can be allowed to try to implement the 'Libyan scenario in Syria," Putin said.
"I very much hope the United States and other countries take this sad experience into account and do not try to set a military scenario in motion in Syria without sanction from the U.N. Security Council.
STOKING NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION?
Putin struck a starker note on Iran, which Western nations fear may be seeking nuclear weapons. Israel has threatened Iran with pre-emptive strikes on its nuclear sites and the United States has not ruled out force if sanctions and diplomacy fail.
"The growing threat of a military strike on this country alarms Russia, no doubt," Putin said of Iran. "If this occurs, the consequences will be truly catastrophic. It is impossible to imagine their real scale."
Putin said global powers seeking to rein in Iran's nuclear programme should recognise its right to enrich uranium, a suggestion the West should be more flexible if it wants to convince Tehran to rein in its nuclear programme.
Western nations are too quick to "grab for the cudgel of sanctions or even military action," he said. "I remind you, this is not the 19th century - or even the 20th."
Putin also warned against putting too much pressure on North Korea, saying that its nuclear status is "unacceptable for Russia" but that "efforts to test the strength of the new leader are impermissible" because they could provoke countermeasures.
He suggested Western military intervention in various nations, from the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to NATO's air strikes against Gaddafi's forces in Libya, were only encouraging nuclear proliferation.
Leaders may think, "'Hey, I've got an atomic bomb in my pocket, nobody will touch me," Putin said.
"Like it or not, it's a fact that foreign intervention leads to such thoughts."
"THE AMERICANS ARE OBSESSED"
The term of the protege Putin steered into the Kremlin in 2008, President Dmitry Medvedev, was marked by improvements in Russian-U.S. ties, including a landmark 2010 nuclear arms reduction treaty between the former Cold War foes.
But they are at odds over U.S. plans for a European missile shield, which the Kremlin says it fears is intended to weakening Russia's nuclear arsenal and upset the balance of power.
Putin said he still holds out hope for compromise on missile defence, but suggested the United States may not ready.
"The Americans are obsessed with the idea of providing themselves with absolute invulnerability," he said, adding that would lead to "absolute vulnerability for everyone else."
Putin also expressed concern about Afghanistan, saying thethe NATO operation - which Russia has aided by providing transit and supply routes - had "not resolved its set tasks."
The threats from militancy and drug trafficking were not diminishing, he said, and despite plans for a withdrawal "the Americans are creating military bases there and in neighboring countries. This clearly does not suit us," he said.
Critics say Putin uses the idea of a U.S. threat to deflect attention from domestic problems and to bolster his image as Russia's protector, and some analysts say Russia should be more concerned about a rising China next door.
Putin had little but praise for Beijing in the article, suggesting that he sees little to gain from showing wariness toward a neighbour whose energy-hungry economy is a key market for Russian oil and gas.
"I am convinced that the growth of China's economy is not a threat at all but a challenge that carries with it a colossal potential for business cooperation - a chance to catch the 'Chinese wind' in our economic sail," Putin said.
"China's conduct in the world arena gives no grounds to speak of pretensions to dominance," said Putin, in contrast to his criticism of the United States.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; editing by Philippa Fletcher)