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War of words: Putin, Clinton clash over election protests

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is placing blame for current government protests in Moscow on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after she expressed that recent elections in that country were less than fair.

Updated at 8:35 a.m. ET: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to Vladimir Putin's accusations that the U.S. was stirring up protests against his 12-year rule by saying Thursday she had expressed "well-founded" concerns about the conduct of Russia's parliamentary elections.

Earlier, Putin said Clinton had encouraged Kremlin opponents by criticizing the vote. Clinton suggested on Tuesday that the vote was not free or fair.

Speaking in a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Clinton also said that U.S.-Russian disagreement over the Western alliance's plans for a missile defense system in Europe did not justify Russia taking military counter-measures.

Putin alleged that the United States was spurring protests over the vote by voicing serious concern about their conduct. He said hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign funds had been used to influence the election.

Putin's remarks echoed the tough anti-Western rhetoric he employed in his 2000-2008 presidency to suggest Western nations were funding Kremlin foes to try to weaken Russia and prevent its resurgence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Meanwhile, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told reporters Thursday that he did not see anything out of the ordinary about the protests as "they are a reflection of democracy."

"If people want to have their say on the elections this is fine," he added. 

Updated at 5:45 a.m. ET: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned Thursday that Russian authorities might take an even harder line against protesters who have taken to the streets alleging election-rigging.

"We need to think about strengthening the law and holding more responsible those who carry out the task of a foreign government to influence our internal political process," he said.

Moscow has already put 50,000 police and troops out on the streets, backed by water cannon.

The demonstrations have been some of the biggest and most sustained protests Russia has seen in years, and police have detained hundreds of protesters.

Published at 4:55 a.m. ET: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the United States of encouraging protests over Russia's parliamentary election and said hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign funds were used to influence the vote.

In his first public remarks about daily demonstrations by protesters alleging Sunday's vote was fraudulent and unfair, Putin said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "gave a signal" to Kremlin opponents.

"She set the tone for some opposition activists, gave them a signal, they heard this signal and started active work," Putin said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party lost a significant share of its seats in Sunday's parliamentary election but will still have a majority. Opponents say even that was achieved by widespread vote fraud.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has urged Russian authorities to annul the results of Sunday's vote and hold a new one. He says "ignoring public opinion discredits the authorities and destabilizes the situation."

'Mercenary political interests'
Putin said some of the demonstrators who have protested daily over allegations of election fraud were pursuing selfish political aims and that most Russians do not want political upheaval.

Crowds have packed the streets of Russia in protest of the country's parliamentary elections. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

"We are all adults here and we understand that some ... of the organizers act in accordance with a well-known scenario and in their own mercenary political interests," he said.

The United States has expressed serious concern about the conduct of the Russian election, which Clinton suggested was not free or fair.

Meanwhile, police in Russia's two largest cities arrested scores of demonstrators Wednesday, in a third straight night of protests against the ruling party and alleged election fraud.

The demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg appeared to attract fewer protesters than in previous days, roughly 300 in each city, but Russians' willingness to risk jail time and clashes with police indicates significant anger.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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