Putin warns West over Syria, Iran

By Vladimir Isachenkov

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 27 2012 7:28 a.m. MST

FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012 file photo, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gesture while speaking as he attends a massive rally in his support at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia. Russian and Ukrainian special services have arrested a group of suspects accused of involvement in a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia's state television reported Monday, Feb. 27, 2012.

Alexander Zemlianichenko, file, AP Photo

Enlarge photo»

MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned against military intervention in Syria or an attack on Iran in scathing criticism of the West on Monday as he laid out his foreign policy priorities less than a week before Russia's presidential election.

Putin said the West had backed the Arab Spring to advance its interests in the region, and that instead of promoting democracy the revolts had given rise to religious extremism.

Anti-Western rhetoric has been a key part of Putin's campaign, aimed at rallying support among his core electorate of blue-collar workers, farmers and state employees widely suspicious of the West after years of government propaganda.

In criticizing the Arab Spring and accusing the U.S. of trying to encourage a similar uprising in Russia, Putin on Monday played on patriotic feelings by posturing as a defender of national interests in the face of potential unrest.

His lengthy article, brimming with criticism of the United States and its Western allies, was the latest in a series of manifestos Putin has published in Russian newspapers ahead of Sunday's election. Although none of the other four candidates poses a challenge and Putin is all but certain to win, he has been rattled by an unprecedented outburst of public discontent in Russia.

Putin defended the Russia-China decision earlier this month to veto a United Nations resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar Assad's crackdown on protests, saying that Moscow wouldn't allow a replay of what happened in Libya, where NATO airstrikes helped Libya's rebels oust Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

"Learning from that bitter experience, we are against any U.N. Security Council resolutions that could be interpreted as a signal for military interference in domestic processes in Syria," Putin said in the article published in Moscow News.

He said that any attempt to launch military action without U.N. approval would undermine the world body's role and hurt global security.

"I strongly hope that the United States and other nations will learn from the sad experience and won't try to resort to a forceful scenario in Syria," Putin said. "I can't understand that bellicose itch."

Activists estimate that close to 7,500 people have been killed in the 11 months since the Assad regime's brutal crackdown on dissent began.

Putin said both the Syrian government and opposition forces must pull out of populated areas to end bloodshed, adding that the Western refusal to demand that from Assad's opponents was "cynical."

Syria is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East. Moscow has maintained close ties with Damascus since the Cold War, when Syria was led by the current leader's father, Hafez Assad.

Putin said that Russian companies have lost ground in the countries engulfed by the Arab Spring uprisings and are being replaced by firms from the nations that backed the regime change.

"That raises the thought that the tragic events to some extent had been driven not by concern about human rights, but a desire by some to redistribute markets," he said. "We mustn't watch that with an Olympian calm."

Putin also warned against an attack on Iran.

"Russia is worried about the growing threat of a strike on Iran," Putin said. "If it happens, the consequences will be truly catastrophic. Their real scale is impossible to imagine."

He said the international community must acknowledge Iran's right to conduct uranium enrichment in exchange for placing the program under close supervision by the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Iran has insisted that its controversial uranium enrichment program is aimed at producing energy and medical isotopes, but the West believes it's a cover for developing nuclear weapons.

"The West has gotten carried away trying to 'punish' some nations," Putin said. "It reaches out for sanctions or even a military club at the drop of a hat."

He said the Western emphasis on using force could encourage more countries to seek nuclear weapons in a bid to protect themselves: "If I have a nuclear bomb in my pocket, they wouldn't touch me because it would cost them. And those lacking a bomb should wait a 'humanitarian' intervention."

Putin also accused the U.S. of using non-governmental organizations as an instrument of "soft power" aimed at destabilizing regimes.

"It's necessary to draw a clear distinction between the freedom of speech, normal political activities on the one hand, and illegal instruments of soft power on the other," he said, adding that U.S. attempts to interfere in Russian elections have strained ties.

The statement follows Putin's earlier claims that the U.S. was behind the protests against his rule.

In Monday's article, Putin again criticized the U.S.-led plans for a NATO missile defense system in Europe, saying it's aimed against Russian nuclear forces.

"The Americans are obsessed with the idea of ensuring absolute invulnerability for themselves, which is utopian and unfeasible from both technological and geopolitical points of view," he said. "An absolute invulnerability for one means an absolute vulnerability for all the others. It's impossible to accept such a prospect."

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