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By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said he is ready to work with Mitt Romney if he is elected U.S. president but suggested he would not go out of his way to court Washington and that the relationship would depend largely on the United States.
The Republican candidate has accused President Barack Obama of being soft on Moscow during his four-year term.
Asked in an interview with Russia’s RT television whether Russia could work with Romney if he is elected on November 6, Putin said with a smile: “We can. We will work with whomever the American people elect.”
“But we will work as effectively as our partners want,” he said in an excerpt from the interview to be broadcast in full on Thursday, seemingly suggesting he believes the U.S. desire to engage with Russia might change under a new administration.
Relations between Moscow and Washington, badly damaged by Russia’s 2008 war with pro-Western Georgia, improved after Obama moved to “reset” ties early in his term and signed a nuclear arms treaty with then-president Dmitry Medvedev in 2010.
Relations have been strained since by disputes over issues including uprisings in Libya and Syria, Putin’s accusations of U.S. support for opposition protests, U.S. missile defence plans and U.S. criticism of the jailing of Russian band Pussy Riot.
However, many U.S. Republican lawmakers insist Obama has been too soft on Russia.
At the Republican convention at which he was nominated as the party’s candidate last month, Romney accused Obama of being too accommodating and promised “less flexibility and more backbone” in U.S. policy on Russia if he wins the election.
Kremlin allies in Russia’s legislature have said Romney’s tough talk is driven in part by campaign concerns and that he will have to be realistic and work with Putin, whose term ends in 2018, if he is elected.
In a foreign policy decree issued after his inauguration on May 7, Putin said Moscow wants “truly strategic” cooperation with Washington “to a level” but must be treated as an equal and will not tolerate interference in its affairs.
Putin, who stayed away from a G8 summit Obama hosted in May, citing the need to form a government after his inauguration, gave the interview to English-language RT ahead of an Asia-Pacific economic summit (APEC) he will host in Vladivostok.
Obama is skipping the APEC summit on September 8 and 9 because it comes right after he accepts the Democratic Party nomination on Thursday. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will represent the United States.
After three women from Pussy Riot were jailed for two years last month for a profane “punk prayer” against Putin in a Moscow cathedral, Kremlin opponents and defence lawyers accused Putin of influencing their trial and sentence. He denied that.
“I know what is going on with Pussy Riot, but I am staying out of it completely,” RT quoted Putin as saying.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)