Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin compared the U.S. to a “frightening monster” and urged France to distance itself from its American ally.
“How can one be such a shining example of democracy at home and a frightening monster abroad?” Putin said in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde transmitted live to journalists in Paris yesterday.
Putin, speaking the day after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said the U.S. was creating “new Berlin Walls” in Europe by pushing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to expand into ex-Soviet states Georgia and Ukraine.
The Russian prime minister, who passed on the presidency earlier this month to his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, continues to set the foreign and domestic policy agenda. Under Putin’s eight-year presidency, Russia clashed with the U.S. and the European Union over matters such as NATO expansion and a planned U.S. missile-defense system in eastern Europe.
“France, I hope, will continue to conduct an independent foreign policy,” said Putin, whose interview was embargoed until publication by Le Monde today. “This is in the nature of French people, they don’t want their country tied down, and any French leader will have to respect that.”
The election of Medvedev, 42, a lawyer who has called for more dialogue between the East and West, has raised hopes of an eventual thaw. Still, Sarkozy decided to meet with Putin, breaking with the tradition of Group of Eight leaders of dealing with Russia at a presidential level, showing the 55-year-old former KGB colonel’s dominant influence.
Under Russia’s constitution, the president is supposed to be solely responsible for foreign policy and has more formal authority than the prime minister, who can be fired by presidential decree and is charged with implementing Kremlin policies.
Putin “remains the pre-eminent power” in Russia, said Michael Emerson, a former EU ambassador to Moscow and an analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “The EU has to deal with the people who are there, both of them.”
Putin, who has threatened to point missiles at Ukraine should it host missile bases as a NATO member, said expanding the military alliance deeper into former Soviet territory risked a return to Cold War competition.
“NATO expansion means drawing up new dividing lines in Europe, new Berlin Walls,” he said. “This time we can’t see them, but they’re no less dangerous.”
Putin said Russia sees “military infrastructure coming closer to our borders,” and denounced the U.S. for seeking a “monopoly in world affairs.”
Asked about the division of power between himself and Medvedev, Putin said that his successor had “the final word.”
At the same time, the Russian premier slipped up by referring to himself as the president of Russia. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon at a press conference two days ago mistakenly called Putin the Russian president three times.
Putin’s visit to France — a month before the country assumes the EU’s rotating presidency — came a week before Medvedev meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on his first Western European trip as Russia’s head of state.