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Putin Repeats Threats in Final Presidential Address
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Putin Repeats Threats in Final Presidential Address

World

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Shades of the Cold War. Russian bombers have been buzzing U.S. aircraft carriers in the last few days, and Moscow is threatening to point missiles at European countries. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called recent statements from Moscow reprehensible. But in Moscow today, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated his threats.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER: Inside a packed Kremlin auditorium, photographers snaps pictures of Vladimir Putin emerging for his last annual news conference as Russian president.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking in Russian)

FEIFER: Putin is due to step down after a presidential election in less than three weeks but that hasn't stopped him from using his public appearances to fuel Russia's growing confrontation with the West.

Sitting next to his Ukrainian counterpart earlier this week, Putin threatened to direct Russian missiles at Ukraine if it becomes a member of NATO.

When asked today if he stands by his warning, Putin began with a lecture of about the universal nature of democracy.

PUTIN: (Through translator) The great majority of Ukrainian citizens are against joining NATO, and still Ukraine's leaders went ahead and signed a little paper saying they want to join. Now, is that democracy? Who asked the citizens of Ukraine?

FEIFER: Last weekend, a Russian bomber flew over the deck of an American aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean - the latest in a string of such incidents. The day before, Putin blasted the West for starting a new arms race saying Russia would respond by developing new weapons.

Russia is concentrating its ire against Washington's planned missile defense system. Moscow is especially upset about plans to install parts of the shield in Poland and the Czech Republic saying the system would be directed against Russia.

Today, Putin repeated his threat to target nuclear missiles at any country hosting the U.S. missile shield.

PUTIN: (Through translator) We're not creating this problem. We're asking not to start it. But no one is listening to us, so we're saying it in advance: If you take that step and setup the missile system, we'll have no choice but to respond.

FEIFER: Putin today said Russia has an unspecified plan of action over Kosovo's expected declaration of independence next week although Moscow has already indicated it won't take punitive measures. Putin said Russia doesn't want a new Cold War, saying Moscow wants friendly relations with all countries.

The White House has downplayed Moscow's bluster that there are signs some in Washington are starting to take note. U.S. military officials say they're trying to figure out whether Russia has entered what they call a Cold War mindset. And U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Senate committee hearing yesterday that Russia should know it can no longer intimidate its neighbors.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Are they unhelpful and really - I will use a different word, reprehensible rhetoric that is coming out of Moscow is unacceptable and it's not helpful to a relationship that I actually think has some positive aspects.

FEIFER: Analysts say Putin's opposition to the West is partly meant to whip up support for his chosen successor ahead of the presidential election next month. But no one expects Russia's foreign policy to change after the president steps down in May. Putin says he wants to stick around in a powerful new position as prime minister.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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