SOCHI, Russia – President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Russia wants good relations with the United States but he objected vigorously to Vice President Dick Cheney's recent criticism of democratic backtracking by the Kremlin.
"We see how the United States defends its interests, we see what methods and means they use for this," Putin said at a news conference following a summit meeting of Russia and the European Union in his most direct criticism of Cheney's remarks.
In a speech earlier this month in Lithuania, Cheney accused the Kremlin of rolling back democracy and strong-arming its ex-Soviet neighbors.
"When we fight for our interests, we also look for the most acceptable methods to accomplish our national tasks, and I find it strange that this seems inexplicable to someone," Putin said, replying to a reporter's request for his reaction to the vice president's remarks.
Even before Cheney's speech, Russian-U.S. relations had been on a steady downward slide. Last month, Putin claimed the United States had put up artificial obstacles to slow Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization, and the Pentagon accused Moscow of giving intelligence on U.S. troop movements in Iraq to Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The crisis around Iran's nuclear program has seen the two countries, which proclaimed themselves "strategic partners" just a few years ago, firmly in opposing camps.
Putin said that despite the friction, the United States remains "one of our major partners."
But he suggested no nation had the right to interfere in Russia's relations with third countries.
"As far as the view of our relations with other countries, we will discuss our relations with them directly," Putin said icily.
The growing rift with Washington threatens to mar the summit of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations in St. Petersburg in July.
Speaking of U.S. criticism of a hard-fought Russian-Ukrainian gas deal, which many Ukrainian politicians and the U.S. government have objected to as putting the two sides on unequal terms, Putin asked: "How can leaders of other states say it is bad for the Ukrainians?"
"I don't understand if this criticism is addressed to us or the Ukrainian leadership. But you should ask those who make these comments."
Putin and European Union leaders agreed their countries had common interests in easing their dispute over energy supplies and markets, but acknowledged differences.
"We are aware of our common interests," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said at the final press conference. "What we want is a relationship based on ... the principle of interdependence."
The energy disputes have hung over the relationship since January, when a brief disruption in Russian gas supplies to Western Europe amid a price dispute with Ukraine tarnished Russia's reputation as a reliable supplier and encouraged the EU to intensify a search for alternative supply routes.
"We are as interested as Russia to avoid further misunderstandings," said Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, whose country currently holds the EU presidency.
But Barroso said there were still "sensitivities" that needed to be addressed.
"This is not at all, I want to underline this on our side, a problem of lack of trust in Russia as a credible supplier, as Russia has always been," he said. "But there are some sensitivities, it is true."
He said the sensitivities included the way public opinion in the EU reacted to the problems between Russia and Ukraine earlier this year.
Putin tried to assure his EU partners that China was no substitute for Europe as a market for Russia's oil and gas although Russia was developing markets for its energy resources.
"China is not an alternative to Europe for energy supplies," Putin told a news conference following the Russia-EU summit.
The New Year's shutdown, which was followed by gas shortages amid a harsh winter, came as Russia declared energy security to be a top priority of its leadership this year of the G-8.
European fears of excessive energy reliance on Russia, which supplies a quarter of Europe's gas and is its second-biggest supplier of oil, increased further amid talk that Russia's state-controlled natural gas giant, Gazprom, was considering acquiring Britain's largest gas distributor and negotiating similar deals in other EU nations.