SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s critical stance on Russia proves that Moscow’s opposition to an American anti-missile shield in Europe is sound policy, President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday.
In his second public remarks about the Republican nominee in a week, Putin said there were “pluses and minuses” to Romney’s attitude toward Washington’s former Cold War enemy.
“The fact that Mr. Romney considers us enemy No. 1 and clearly has a poor opinion of us is a minus. But the fact that he speaks that way - directly, frankly and clearly - means that he is a direct and candid person. That’s a plus,” he said.
“We’ll focus on the pluses, not the minuses,” he told reporters in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Romney once called Russia “without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe”, and has promised “less flexibility and more backbone” in policy on Russia if he defeats President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
In power since 2000, Putin began a six-year presidential term in May after a campaign in which he used anti-American rhetoric as a political tool, accusing the United States of stirring up street protests in Russia.
Last week, Putin said that Romney’s criticism was in large part electioneering, but that his apparent animosity meant Russia’s suspicions about a missile shield the United States is building in Europe would only deepen if he is elected.
U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Europe, which Washington has already started to deploy, have been a major irritant in U.S.-Russia relations.
Washington says the shield is meant to counter a potential threat from Iran and will pose no risk to Russia.
Russia says the system’s interceptors will be able to destroy Russian warheads in flight by about 2018, weakening its nuclear arsenal and upsetting the balance of power. Moscow wants a binding guarantee the system would never be used against it.
Putin elaborated on the idea on Tuesday, saying he was “grateful” to Romney because his description of Russia as a foe “has once again confirmed our approach to the issue of missile defense is the right one”.
“He has strengthened our negotiating position on this sensitive and very important issue,” Putin said.
Russian officials have said that while the Obama administration’s assurances that the shield is not meant to weaken Russia may be honest, a future president could have different intentions.
“The main thing for us is that even if Romney does not win this election, in four years he or somebody with similar views may come to power,” Putin said. “And we must take that into account when we consider how to provide for the security of the Russian Federation well into the future.”
Russia says it is taking steps to neutralize the perceived threat, including upgrades to its offensive nuclear arsenal. Russia’s top general said in May that Russia could carry out pre-emptive strikes on future missile defense installations in Europe to protect its security.
Relations between Moscow and Washington deteriorated after the Bush administration invaded Iraq and hit a low point with Russia’s war with pro-Western Georgia in 2008.
They improved after Obama moved to “reset” ties in 2009, but have been strained by disputes over issues ranging from global security to human rights.
Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Louise Ireland