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Page last updated at 21:26 GMT, Thursday, 11 September 2008 22:26 UK

Putin defends Georgia offensive

By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent, Sochi

Putin defends Georgian actions

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made an impassioned defence of Russia's military intervention in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Mr Putin accused the Western press of an "immoral and dishonest account of what happened".

He said Russia had had no choice but to intervene following what he alleged was Georgian aggression.

And he went on to dismiss out of hand European criticism of Russian force as "disproportionate".

"What did you want us to do? Wave our penknives in the air and wipe the bloody snot off our noses?" he asked, adding: "When an aggressor comes into your territory, you need to punch him in the face - an aggressor needs to punished."

He added that Russian tanks had, after all, only been 15km from Tbilisi and could easily have taken the Georgian capital and ousted President Mikhail Saakashvilli if they had wanted to.

Mr Putin also accused the US of behaving like the Roman Empire by believing it could pursue its own interests and extending its influence to the Caucasus without regard for Russia's point of view.

"God forbid that we should tread on US toes in its backyard," he said, expressing frustration that the United States seemed to think it was all right to arm Georgia on Russia's border - a move which he repeatedly argued had provoked Georgia to take up military action.

'Anti-Russian hysteria'

On wider relations with the West, he insisted that current tensions did not amount to the start of a new Cold War, and dismissed arguments that Russia might suffer diplomatic or economic isolation because of the crisis.

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
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But he also said Russia was prepared to work with Western partners and wanted a constructive relationship with the European Union but only if what he called "realities" were taken into account.

Russia, said the prime minister, should be treated as an equal partner and all sides agree on new common rules of behaviour based on international law.

"The problem is not with us," Mr Putin said, "it lies with political groups in the West who use old phobias to whip up anti-Russian hysteria."

However, he warned that tensions between Russia and the EU may well worsen if, as expected, US missiles are deployed in Poland as part of the controversial missile shield.

He said he expected that to be the moment that Russia would reposition its missiles to point at European targets.

"Why have you placed missiles under our nose?" he said, and warned it would ratchet up an extra notch the nuclear arms race in Europe.

UK relations

Mr Putin also indicated that relations with Britain were unlikely to improve while Russian emigres remained in the UK despite Russia's requests to extradite them to stand trial - an apparent reference to the Russian business tycoon Boris Berezovsky and the former Chechen spokesman, Ahmed Zakayev.

South Ossetian residents celebrate the Russian president's declaration (26 August 2008)
Many South Ossetians feel closer to Russia than Georgia
"Why do you allow UK territory to be used a launching pad to fight Russia?" he asked.

"Imagine if we gave sanctuary to armed members of the IRA - that's why its not possible to build normal relations with Britain," he said.

Mr Putin also threw new light on the crisis in South Ossetia.

On 8 August, when he was in Beijing for the start of the Olympic Games, he had spoken to US President George W Bush soon after hearing of the attack by Georgian troops on the South Ossetian capital - but the United States had failed to intervene.

In Beijing, he had already raised the question of Russia recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent territories with the Chinese government, and told them Russia did not expect Chinese support.

This is an interesting comment that suggests Russia was already planning to recognise the two regions from very early on in the crisis.



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