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(photo credit: AP)
President Vladimir Putin evoked one of the most dangerous confrontations of the Cold War to highlight Russian opposition to a proposed US missile defense system in Europe, likening the threat to the Cuban missile crisis.
The comments - made at the end of a summit between Russia and European Union that failed to resolve several festering disputes - were the latest in a series of belligerent statements from the assertive Putin.
Emboldened by oil- and gas-fueled economic clout, Russia is increasingly at loggerheads with Washington and much of Europe on issues ranging from Iran and Kosovo to energy supplies and human rights.
Putin traveled to Portugal, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, for talks with leaders of the 27-nation bloc, in an effort to patch up widening differences. But despite a positive spin put on the meeting by Putin and EU President Jose Manuel Barroso - who called it "open, frank and productive" - the summit yielded no major breakthroughs.
The EU and Russia have been without a new cooperation agreement for more than a year now, during which time doubts have grown in many European capitals about the reliability of Russia's energy supplies and trade policies toward EU member nations, such as Poland.
Putin used the stage of a news conference at the summit's conclusion Friday to reiterate Russia's stalwart opposition to US plans to put elements of a missile defense system in the former Soviet bloc countries of Poland and the Czech Republic - both of which are now NATO members.
"Analogous actions by the Soviet Union, when it deployed missiles in Cuba, prompted the 'Caribbean crisis,"' Putin said, using the Russian term for the Cuban missile crisis.
"For us the situation is technologically very similar. We have withdrawn the remains of our bases from Vietnam, from Cuba, and have liquidated everything there, while at our borders, such threats against our country are being created," he said.
The 1962 crisis erupted when US President John F. Kennedy demanded that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev remove his country's nuclear missiles from Cuba because they could have been used to launch a close-range attack on the US The Americans imposed a naval blockade and the world teetered on the edge of war before the Soviets backed down.
Putin also suggested that the tension was much lower than in 1962 because the United States and Russia are now "partners," not Cold War enemies. His relationship with President George W. Bush, Putin said, helps solve problems, calling him a "personal friend."
Putin said there has been no concrete US response to his counterproposals for cooperation on missile defense, but added that the United States is now listening to Russia's concerns about its plans and seeking to address them.
In Washington, White House press secretary Dana Perino underscored those remarks rather than the Cuban missile crisis analogy, saying "there's no way you could walk away without thinking that he thinks that we can work together."
The US plan is part of a wider missile shield involving defenses in California and Alaska which the United States says are to defend against any long-range missile attack from countries such as North Korea or Iran.
Russia strongly opposes the idea, saying Iran is decades away from developing missile technology that could threaten Europe or North America, and it says the US bases are aimed at spying on Russian facilities and undermining Russia's missile deterrent force.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters there were "clear historical differences" between the US plans and the circumstances that led to the Cuban crisis.
"I don't think that they are historically analogous in any way, shape or form," he said.
Turning to his future, Putin said he would not assume presidential powers if he became prime minister after finishing his term next May.
The popular Putin is barred from seeking a third consecutive term in the March 2008 presidential election. But he suggested earlier this month that he could become prime minister, leading to speculation that the substantial powers now invested in the presidency might be transferred to the prime minister.
"If someone thinks that I intend to move, let's say, into the government of the Russian Federation and transfer the fundamental powers there, that's not the case," Putin told reporters. "There will be no infringement on the powers of the president of the Russian Federation, at least while it depends on me."
After repeating his insistence that he does not intend to change the constitution in order to run for a third term, Putin said he had not yet decided where and in what capacity he would work as former president. He is expected to remain an influential figure in Russia.
Putin will lead the ticket of the dominant United Russia party in December parliamentary elections. An overwhelming victory for the party could turn the legislature into a new power base for Putin and give him a claim to continued authority based on his popularity.
Topping the list of concerns for a growing number of European nations is Russian energy policy - the reliability of supplies and the intentions of state-run oil and gas companies. Russia already provides 30 percent of EU energy imports, including 44 percent of natural gas imports.
The state-controlled gas giant OAO Gazprom has recently moved to acquire assets in Europe and strike bilateral deals with some EU countries.
That has led the EU to consider new restrictions on non-EU companies owning majority stakes in gas pipelines or electricity power grids without additional agreements - much to the Russians' consternation.
Earlier, Putin tried to assure European leaders that Russian investment was not to be feared.
"When we hear in some countries phrases like, 'The Russians are coming with their scary money,' it sounds a bit funny," he said.
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