Putin: Russia still US partner despite leaked cables

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin defended his country's progress in democracy and affirmed its cooperation with Washington in a wide-ranging interview as he brushed aside comments from cables released by WikiLeaks.

Putin told CNN's Larry King in an interview aired late Wednesday that Russia is cooperating with the United States on key issues related to Iran and North Korean nuclear programs.

And Putin offered a harsh rebuke to comments in cables released by WikiLeaks suggesting that Russian democracy is disappearing and that cooperation with Washington has fallen short.

Putin said Defense Secretary Robert Gates was "deeply misled" about Russian democracy and warned US officials not to "interfere" in Russia's internal politics.

"Our country is led by the people of the Russian Federation through the legitimately elected government," he said. "The Russian people have unilaterally made their choice in the direction of democracy in the early '90s. And we will not be led astray."

Putin was responding to the leak of a cable from February in which Gates suggested that "Russian democracy has disappeared." Others have US diplomats referring to Russia as a "virtual mafia state" and saying that President Dmitry Medvedev plays "Robin" to Putin's "Batman."

"I know Mr. Gates," Putin said. "I met him several times. I believe he's a very nice person and he is not a bad expert, too."

But the Russian leader said "he's being deeply misled" on Russian affairs.

As to the Batman and Robin comparison, Putin said it was "aimed to slander one of us."

"This is about our interaction, which is an important factor of the domestic policies in this country," he said.

Putin also denied Russia was moving tactical nuclear weapons near NATO allies, and pointed the finger back at the West for escalating tensions on the issue.

"It's not us who are moving forward our missiles to your territory," he told the interviewer, responding to a report that Moscow moving tactical nuclear warheads to within miles of its borders with NATO countries.

Western powers, Putin said, are "planning to mount missiles at the vicinity of our borders, of our territory" in a bid to secure against the threat of Iran's alleged nuclear drive.

"Such a threat, as of now, does not exist," Putin pointed out.

The potential for missiles being hosted near Russian borders "certainly... worries us. And we are obliged to take some actions in response" if that occurs, the prime minister added.

Asked about Iran's disputed nuclear program, Putin said that "we don't have any grounds to suspect Iran in the sense that they seek to possess nuclear arms."

But he added that "we have been cooperating with all our partners, including the United States of America, in the frameworks of the United Nations organizations. And, as you know, up until now, we've been able to adopt concerted decisions."

As to tensions over North Korea's nuclear program, Putin said, "The situation is very worrisome and it's very acute" and pledged to cooperate with the United States and others on the matter.

"Jointly with the partners, including the United States of America, we've been working closely as regards to the settlement of the North Korean peninsula," he said.

"Russia is interested in the continuation of that dialogue."

On other matters, Putin said US President Barack Obama has rallied on the political front while faced with severe economic conditions at home.

"Such assessment is to be provided by the electorate, by the people who voted for him, basically, American citizens first," Putin said.

"But... generally speaking, I might as well say that the President Obama has been confronted with very serious challenges... right now, especially in the sphere of the economy.

Yet, "Obama did whatever he could to respond to the aspirations of the American people... He promised to do that. He did it," Putin said.

He called former US president George W. Bush "a very decent fellow," and recalled congenial family visits with the Bush family.

© 2010 AFP

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