| Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. (Reuters)
Moscow, Dec. 23 (Reuters): President Vladimir Putin said today he would challenge President George W. Bush when they next meet over whether Washington was trying to 'isolate' Russia.
In an end-of-year news conference, the Kremlin leader also implied criticism of Washington's Iraq policy saying he doubted that planned elections there would be democratic while the country was under full occupation.
Putin, who forged a strong personal bond with Bush after throwing his weight quickly behind the war on terror, hailed the US leader as a 'decent and consistent' person.
Relations between Russia and the West have been strained over what critics have described as a Kremlin campaign to crush oil major Yukos' owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky as well as over Moscow's interference in a presidential election in neighbouring ex-Soviet Ukraine.
Putin's overt backing of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich in the rigged poll, to be re-run on Sunday, drew criticism from western countries including the US. Russia in turn has accused the West of seeking to pull Ukraine into its camp and away from Moscow. Putin reacted sharply to a question referring to statements that Russia was better off without Ukraine.
'If we take this as a desire to limit Russia's ability to develop its relations with all its neighbours, then it represents an aspiration to isolate the Russian federation,' he said.
'I don't think that this is the aim of US policy,' he said. Referring to a planned summit in Bratislava on February 24, he said: 'I will, of course, put the question: 'Is this so'
Putin went on to say that, if indeed there was a plan to isolate Russia, it would explain a policy in Chechnya 'directed at creating elements that would destabilise the Russian Federation'. This appeared to be a reference to western calls for a political settlement in Chechnya.
His words suggested that both Ukraine and Chechnya would figure in his summit talks with Bush in the Slovak capital. During the three-hour news conference that touched on a wide range of issues, Putin voiced continued support for the war on terror, but sniped at Washington over Iraq where he opposed the US-led military invasion.
He said Moscow welcomed the aspiration of all those who wanted to see the situation normalise but he added: 'I have grave doubts as to whether democratic elections can be guaranteed in conditions of full occupation.'
Putin carped at US criticism of Russia's elections and internal changes, including new laws to scrap gubernatorial elections and toughen rules for creating parties.
Referring to past criticism of the internal changes in Russia, he said brusquely:'I have to say I am not ecstatic about everything that happens in the US either. Do you think that the electoral system in the US is entirely flawless' Do I have to recall the last (presidential) elections in the US or the one before' he said.