MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin signaled in an interview aired on Thursday that Russia is not ready to shift its stance on Syria, and suggested Western nations were relying on groups such as al-Qaida to help drive President Bashar Assad from power.

In wide-ranging remarks to Russia's RT television, Putin held out hope for an end to a dispute with Washington on missile defense if President Barack Obama is re-elected, calling him "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 that 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.

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