* Putin signals no shift on Syria
* Says Obama is honest, Romney could widen missile rift
* Says not meddling in Pussy Riot case
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, Sept 6 President Vladimir Putin
signalled in an interview aired on Thursday that Russia was not
ready to shift its stance on Syria, and suggested Western
nations were relying on groups such as al Qaeda to help drive
President Bashar al-Assad from power.
Putin held out hope for an end to a dispute with Washington
on missile defence if President Barack Obama were re-elected in
November, telling Russia's RT television he was "an honest
person who really wants to change much for the better".
Putin took aim at Obama's Republican rival Mitt Romney,
calling his criticism of Russia "mistaken" campaign rhetoric and
suggesting a Romney presidency would widen the rift over the
anti-missile shield the United States is deploying in Europe.
In some of his most extensive public comments since he
started a six-year term in May, Putin dismissed Western
criticism on issues ranging from Syria to the conviction of
three anti-government protesters from the punk band Pussy Riot.
Putin was asked whether Moscow should rethink its stance on
Syria after vetoing three Western-backed U.N. Security Council
resolutions designed to pressure Assad to end violence that has
killed 20,000 people.
"Why should only Russia re-evaluate its position?" he said.
"Maybe our partners in the negotiation process should
re-evaluate their position."
Without naming any country, he hinted the United States was
looking to militants to help topple Assad and would regret it,
drawing a parallel with U.S. support for the mujahideen who
fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the Cold War.
"Today somebody is using al Qaeda fighters or people from
other organisations with the same extreme views to achieve their
goals in Syria," Putin said. "This is a very dangerous and
He noted that the United States had imprisoned many alleged
Islamic militants at Guantanamo Bay and said it might as well
"open the gates to Guantanamo and let all the Guantanamo inmates
into Syria, let them fight. It's the same thing".
Putin has signed laws in his new term that critics say are
part of a campaign to suppress dissent after the biggest
protests of his 12 years in power. Putin said he acted to instil
order and that he had taken steps to improve democracy.
"What is 'tightening the screws'?" he said. "If this means
the demand that everyone, including representatives of the
opposition, obey the law, then yes, this demand will be
Putin declined to comment on the sentences handed down to
three women from punk band Pussy Riot jailed for two years for
performing a raucous anti-Putin song inside a Moscow cathedral.
"I know what is going on with Pussy Riot, but I am staying
out of it completely", he told the channel.
But he suggested the band's notoriety had forced its
"indecent" name into public discourse, reinforcing the point by
prodding his interviewer to translate the word "pussy".
"I want to direct your attention to the moral side of the
issue," he added, describing a previous group-sex stunt that
included at least one of the convicted women and adding a
off-colour joke of his own about group sex.
Putin said abuses committed against the Russian Orthodox
Church and other faiths during the Soviet era made the Pussy
Riot protest particularly offensive and meant "the state is
obliged to protect the feelings of believers".
Kremlin opponents and defence lawyers accused Putin of
influencing last month's trial and sentence, which the United
States and European nations branded disproportionate.
"IMAGE OF AN ENEMY"
Putin condemned British and U.S. efforts to bar Russians
linked to the 2009 death in jail of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who
was arrested by the same law enforcement officers he accused of
a multi-million dollar fraud.
He said Russia would respond in kind if the United States
adopted a law requiring the government to deny visas and freeze
assets to Russians linked to Magnitsky's death.
Relations between Moscow and Washington improved after Obama
moved to "reset" ties, but have been strained by disputes over
issues ranging from global security to human rights.
Putin said Russia would continue to talk with Washington
about missile defence but "protect itself and preserve the
strategic balance" if the United States pushed ahead with an
anti-missile shield Moscow sees as a threat.
Russia's suspicions that the shield is aimed to weaken it
would only deepen if Romney were elected and pushed ahead with
it because the Republican "considers us enemy No.1", Putin said.
Romney once called Russia "without question our No. 1
geopolitical foe", and has promised "less flexibility and more
backbone" in policy on Russia if he wins the Nov. 6 election.
"As for Mr. Romney's position, we understand that it is in
part...campaign rhetoric, but I think it is, of course, without
a doubt mistaken," Putin said.
"Because to conduct oneself like that in the international
arena is the same as using the instruments of nationalism and
segregation in the domestic politics of your own country."