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Russia's Putin: Romney 'mistaken,' Obama 'honest'

Anatoly Maltsev / EPA

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a cup of coffee in a restaurant during an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Week event in Vladivostok, Russia, Thursday.

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin said in an interview aired Thursday that Russia can work with Mitt Romney if he's elected U.S. president, even though Romney has called Russia the United States' "No. 1 geopolitical foe."

However, Putin also suggested that a Romney presidency would widen the rift over an anti-missile shield the United States is deploying in Europe. 

The Russian leader held out hope for an end to the missile defense dispute if Barack Obama is re-elected in November, telling Russia's RT television he was "an honest person who really wants to change much for the better."

Romney 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," he added.

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"We'll work with whichever president is elected by the American people. But our effort will be only as efficient as our partners will want it to be," Putin said.

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. 

Tensions between President Barack Obama and Russia President Vladimir Putin are making it more difficult for the two countries to find common ground on issues like Syria and Iran. Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov discusses.

Putin said Russia would continue to talk with Washington but "protect itself and preserve the strategic balance" if the United States pushed ahead with the anti-missile shield, which Moscow sees as a threat. 

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In some of his most extensive public comments since he started a six-year term in May, Putin also 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." 

'Dangerous and short-sighted'
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-Qaida fighters or people from other organizations with the same extreme views to achieve their goals in Syria," Putin said. "This is a very dangerous and short-sighted policy." 

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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." 

Russia's President-elect Vladimir Putin won an election that independent observers say was neither free nor fair. Monitors found multiple ballots were cast in a third of polling stations.  However they conceded that Mr. Putin would still have won regardless of vote-rigging. ITN's Bill Neely reports. 

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 instill 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 consistently implemented." 

Pussy Riot's name 'indecent'
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. 

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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-color joke of his own about group sex. 

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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." 

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Kremlin opponents and defense lawyers accused Putin of influencing last month's trial and sentence, which the United States and European nations branded disproportionate. 

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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