MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin, in one of his harshest attacks on the United States in seven years in power, accused Washington on Saturday of attempting to force its will on the world.
The White House said it was “surprised and disappointed” by Putin’s accusations but added Washington expected to continue to work with Moscow in areas such as counter-terrorism and reducing the spread and threat of weapons of mass destruction.
In a speech in Germany, which one U.S. senator said smacked of Cold War rhetoric, Putin accused the United States of making the world a more dangerous place by pursuing policies aimed at making it “one single master”.
Attacking the concept of a “unipolar” world in which the United States was the sole superpower, he said: “What is a unipolar world? No matter how we beautify this term it means one single center of power, one single center of force and one single master.”
“It has nothing in common with democracy because that is the opinion of the majority taking into account the minority opinion,” he told the gathering of top security and defense officials.
“People are always teaching us democracy but the people who teach us democracy don’t want to learn it themselves.”
Gordon Johndroe, press secretary for the White House National Security Council, rejected Putin’s comments.
“We are surprised and disappointed with President Putin’s comments. His accusations are wrong,” Johndroe said.
“We expect to continue cooperation with Russia in areas important to the international community such as counter-terrorism and reducing the spread and threat of weapons of mass destruction,” he added.
The Kremlin has for several weeks been dropping hints that Putin, who steps down next year after two terms in power, was preparing a major foreign policy speech that would point the way for his successor.
Its delivery at the prestigious annual Munich meeting on security was clearly aimed at attracting maximum attention.
“The message I got from his speech was that Putin wants Russia to have the same position in the world as the former Soviet Union,” a senior European official told Reuters.
Putin spoke against a background of increasing Russian agitation over U.S. policy on Iraq, and on the Iran and North Korea nuclear issues, as well as growing self-confidence as an emerging energy superpower.
U.S. plans to deploy parts of an anti-missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic have become a fresh irritant in U.S.-Russian relations. Washington says the system is needed for defense against rockets launched by Iran and North Korea -- an argument rejected by Moscow.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who has been extremely critical of the U.S. anti-missile system, will address the conference on Sunday.
Putin said the United States had repeatedly overstepped its national borders in questions of international security, a policy that he said had made the world less, not more, safe.
“Unilateral actions have not resolved conflicts but have made them worse,” Putin said, adding that force should only be used when backed by the UN Security Council.
“This is very dangerous. Nobody feels secure any more because nobody can hide behind international law,” he said.
Putin also said the increased use of force was “causing an arms race with the desire of countries to get nuclear weapons”. He did not name the countries.
Putin mentioned no specific conflicts. But he has been very critical of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, where U.S. soldiers are still struggling to crush an insurgency.
New Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the top American official at the conference, said Putin’s comments were “interesting, very forthright”.
U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman said the speech was provocative and marked by “rhetoric that sounded more like the Cold War”.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he was disappointed by Putin’s statement that alliance enlargement was “a serious factor provoking reduced mutual trust”.
“I see a disconnection between NATO’s partnership with Russia as it has developed and Putin’s speech,” he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, denied the Russian president was trying to provoke Washington. “This is not about confrontation. It’s an invitation to think,” he told reporters.
Additional reporting by Madeline Chambers, Mark John, Kristin Roberts in Munich and Caren Bohan in Washington