MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday called Vice President Dick Cheney’s criticism of Russia “an unsuccessful hunting shot,” a caustic comment that underlines tensions ahead of the Group of Eight summit this weekend.
Under fire from critics who say his country does not deserve to be in the G-8 because of democratic backsliding during his more than six years in power, a confident Putin said the elite club of wealthy nations needs Russia because of its energy riches and nuclear might.
In three interviews with Western TV networks posted on the Kremlin Web site Wednesday, days before the summit in St. Petersburg, Putin set out what sounded like ground rules for dealing with an increasingly assertive Russia, saying his nation is open for constructive criticism but will not be pushed around.
Because of its economic weakness following the Soviet collapse of 1991, other nations had strong levers of influence on Russia, Putin said an interview with France’s TF-1 television.
“Today these levers have been lost, but some of our partners have retained the desire to influence our foreign and domestic policies,” he said. “They must get rid of this desire as fast as possible and shift to the normal, equal relations of partners.”
Harsh words get personal
Putin reserved his most acerbic words for Cheney, who angered the Kremlin with a May speech in the ex-Soviet republic of Lithuania in which he accused Russia of cracking down on religious and political rights and of using its energy reserves as “tools of intimidation or blackmail.”
“I think the statements of this sort by your vice president are the same as an unsuccessful hunting shot. It’s pretty much the same,” Putin said in an interview with NBC 'Today' show anchor Matt Lauer, referring mischievously to the errant shot by Cheney that wounded a companion on a hunting trip.
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Cheney, in a May speech in the ex-Soviet republic of Lithuania, accused Russia of cracking down on religious and political rights and of using its energy reserves as “tools of intimidation or blackmail.”
In response, Putin said, “I think the statements of your vice president of this sort are the same as an unsuccessful hunting shot. It’s pretty much the same.”
Putin, who is sensitive about growing U.S. influence in former Soviet republics and satellites that have turned westward since the Soviet collapse, said he believed Cheney’s comments were driven by “political considerations, the desire to support certain political forces in Eastern Europe” at Russia’s expense.
“It bothers me that ... this approach is based on a 20th-century foreign policy philosophy under which our partners always acted from the need to hold Russia back, seeing it as a political opponent at a minimum, or as an enemy,” he said. “This is a rudiment of Cold War thinking.”
Equates Russian democracy with U.S.
Putin offered his standard arguments against Cheney’s criticism, saying Moscow has always fulfilled its natural gas supply contracts with European countries. He contended that while it is impossible to build democracy swiftly after centuries of czarist and communist rule, Russian democracy compares favorably in some ways to that of the West.
“In your country ... the president is elected not directly ... but through a system of electors,” he told NBC, referring to the Electoral College. “And in our country, in Russia, the president ... is elected by a direct secret vote of the entire population. Where is there more democracy in deciding the most important question about power?”
Putin, who regularly makes distinctions between outspoken critics among politicians in foreign countries and the leaders who tend to speak less vehemently, seemed to set Cheney apart from President Bush, calling him “my partner and friend” and suggesting that he is no longer mired in Cold War thinking.
Defends G-8 role
With some in the West arguing that Russia does not deserve a spot in the G-8 — let alone the presidency, which it holds this year and which Putin is using to bolster its international clout — Putin told NBC he sees his country as “a natural member of the club.”
Video: Is Putin's Russia friend or foe of U.S.? “It would be difficult to imagine the effective resolution of the problems we see as today as the most acute for the world economy and world security,” he said, adding that Russia has “four times more proven oil and gas reserves than all the other G-8 countries taken together” and is “one of the mightiest nuclear powers.”
Despite the criticism and warnings to the West, Putin also stressed that Russia shares “common aims” with the United States and other G-8 nations and is not out to confront them or undermine their efforts on issues such as Iran and North Korea.
“The difference is only in the path to the solution of this problem or that one,” he told NBC.
He told Canada’s CTV that Russia was still in a “transition period,” but would keep building democracy in its own way.
He said Russia’s current prosperity and stability had worried some Western politicians, who were more used to a chaotic Russia that could be pushed around.
“And therefore, in my opinion, there is this permanent carping about problems linked to democracy, with freedom of the media and so on. It is used as an instrument of interference in the internal and external policies of Russia.”
Energy security a priority
Russia, in setting the agenda for the G-8 summit, has made energy security one of the top issues. However, Russia this year unsettled Europe when a dispute with Ukraine over natural gas prices resulted in a temporary reduction of Russian natural gas deliveries to Europe. Most of Russia’s Europe-bound gas goes through Ukraine.
President Bush leaves on Wednesday for a trip that will first take him to Germany, and then at week’s end to St. Petersburg, Putin’s hometown and site of this year’s G-8 summit, made up of the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Canada and Russia.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.