Putin warns West against starting arms race

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned the West on Thursday against starting an arms race in Europe by stationing a U.S. missile defense shield near Russia’s borders and said there was no basis for a new Cold War.

Putin, who has taken a robust stance on Russia’s conflict with Georgia over the South Ossetia region, blamed Washington rather than Moscow for resurrecting Soviet-style rhetoric.

“Today there are no ideological contradictions. There is no basis for a Cold War,” Putin told a group of reporters at a three-hour lunch briefing at his retreat in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

“There is no basis for mutual animosity ... Russia has no imperialist ambitions,” he said.

Russia was criticized by the United States and European governments for sending troops into Georgia last month and then recognizing the two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

Some Western leaders accused Moscow of using Soviet-style tactics in dealing with its neighbor over South Ossetia. Others feared Moscow might take similar steps to reassert its influence over other countries it long dominated in the Soviet Union.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney charged Moscow earlier this month with using intimidation and “brute force”.

“There is no more Soviet threat but they are trying to resurrect it,” Putin said.

He questioned criticism of Russia for crushing Georgia’s bid to retake South Ossetia by force, which prompted concern over energy security in the region and rattled Russian markets with shares losing more than 40 percent of their value since May.

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“What did you expect us to do? Respond with a catapult? ... We punched the aggressor in the face. Did you expect us to wipe the bloody snot off our faces and bow our heads?” he said.

Putin said the stock market falls were due to the global credit crisis and not Russia’s intervention in Georgia.

Putin, his speech peppered with strong language, has spearheaded criticism of the United States, accusing the U.S. administration of stoking the conflict to help the Republican candidate in the race for the White House.

His successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, once thought to be firmly in his mentor Putin’s shadow, has steered a more balanced course, setting up a diplomatic “good cop, bad cop” routine.

In Sochi, Putin accused the United States of acting like “a Roman emperor”, but also said Moscow would maintain relations with the next U.S. president due to be elected in November.

“We’ll see how actively they use anti-Russian rhetoric. This is a sign of the weakness of the candidates,” he said. “Whatever the result of the elections we will speak and maintain relations with the next U.S. president.”

Putin again warned Poland and the Czech Republic against hosting the U.S. missile shield -- a contrast to a slight softening of position by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Warsaw that Moscow remained open to talks.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks during an interview with CNN in the Black Sea resort Sochi, August 28, 2008. REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Pool

Washington says the shield is aimed against what it calls “rogue states” like Iran, but Moscow fears it will pose a direct threat to Russia’s security.

“Our targeting of these countries will happen as soon as these missiles are brought,” said Putin.

“Please do not instigate an arms race in Europe. It is not needed. What should we do? Sit pretty while they deploy missiles?”

He said if Ukraine, a neighboring former Soviet republic, joined NATO, it “would be very detrimental”.

Putin showed little concern about sanctions, which had been raised by some members of the European Union, including the Baltic States.

The bloc was unable to reach a consensus on whether and how best to punish its largest energy supplier, but Washington is holding out the prospect of sanctions.

“In the global context it is better to support one another,” he said. “Risks are reciprocal. We are taking risks when we invest dozens of billions of dollars in the U.S. economy.”

Putin reserved some of his strongest criticism for Britain, which he accused of harboring people wanted on criminal charges in Russia and allowing them to operate campaigns against the Russian government from their London base.

“Okay you can keep them. You have a legal system that protects them. But why do they use Britain as a launch-pad to fight Russia? Is this a normal relationship between partners?”

Reporting by Janet McBride; writing by Elizabeth Piper; editing by Diana Abdallah