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US hits back after Putin tirade

London Telegraph | February 12, 2007  
Adrian Blomfield

The United States and Russia were locked in a bitter war of words yesterday as officials reacted furiously to a speech by Vladimir Putin that represented the most ferocious attack on US policy by a Russian leader since the Cold War.

Although Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, sought to cool some of the angry rhetoric flying between the two former Cold War adversaries by describing Russia as a "partner", he added: "We wonder too about some Russian policies that seem to work against international stability such as its arms transfers and its temptation to use energy resources for political coercion."

The comments, echoed by officials across the US political spectrum, came a day after astonished delegates listened to an unprecedented tirade from the Russian leader that was at times reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev's shoe-banging rhetoric.

Reflecting the growing chill in relations between the two countries, Mr Putin accused the United States of trying to subjugate the world and termed its policy in the Middle East as "unilateral and frequently illegitimate."

"Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper-use of military force in international relations that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflict," he said.

"The United States has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is extremely dangerous. It results in the fact that no-one feels safe because no-one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that can protect them." While many of the assembled European politicians may have secretly agreed with Mr Putin's feelings on America's invasion of Iraq, fear of Russia's democratic trajectory and growing energy might united delegates in condemnation of the speech.

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said the West had to accept that Mr Putin's speech represented "the real Russia of today". His Czech counterpart, Karel Schwazenburg, said the speech showed "clearly and convincingly" why Nato had been right to expand into eastern Europe.

The Nato secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, also condemned the speech.

Mr Gates, a former CIA officer, tried to put Mr Putin's comments down to the Russian president's KGB background.

"I guess old spies have a habit of blunt speaking," he said. "However I've been to re-education camp," a jibe that won approving laughter and applause from the audience. "One Cold War was quite enough."

For weeks, the Kremlin had indicated that Mr Putin would make a key foreign policy statement at the conference. Foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko said last week that Mr Putin was going to outline "his vision of the place and role of Russia in the present day world". And while the tenor of Mr Putin's speech may have caused outrage, it has hardly caused surprise.

Relations with both Europe and the United States have been deteriorating as a newly assertive Russia, buoyed by booming energy prices, has shaken off the post-Soviet malaise of the 1990s.

Western criticism has mounted as Mr Putin curtailed freedoms in Russia and imposed economic punishments on ex-Soviet neighbours who had pursued a pro-Western course.

In return the Kremlin is particularly angered by US plans to move missiles into eastern Europe.. While Washington insists that the missiles are directed at the growing threat of Iran and North Korea, the Kremlin is convinced they are directed at Russia.

Last week, hawkish defence minister Sergei Ivanov, seen as a possible successor of Mr Putin when he stands down next year, announced an eight-year £100 billion military upgrade. Defence spending has quadrupled since Mr Putin came to power.

But western diplomats argued yesterday that Mr Putin's speech reflected as much weakness as it did strength.

Russia's military hardware is largely rusting and, even though the Kremlin may be trying to develop new missiles, it has lost the nuclear race.

"Putin's speech was in part impotent rage," said a Western diplomat. "He's a strong believer that the Cold War principle of Mutually Assured Destruction made the world a safer place." "When he railed against a unipolar world, he was essentially acknowledging that for the first time in 50 years the United States has reached nuclear primacy."

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