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Medvedev on stage to project image of tough leader

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took to the stage Wednesday in a vigorous, hours-long news conference suggestive of his mentor Vladimir Putin, showing his clear desire to be seen as an independent, no-nonsense world leader.

In his biggest news conference since taking the helm in 2008, Medvedev said Russia should modernize faster than predecessor Putin thinks, but remained coy about whether he plans to seek a second term.

Medvedev made a point to express clear differences of opinion with his powerful prime minister as he sought to project an image of a strong and modern leader with tough statements on foreign policy.

He issued a warning to the United States on missile defense and warned other nations that Moscow wouldn't support foreign interference in Syria. At the same time, he urged liberalization on domestic issues and challenged Putin, who many see as the senior partner in Russia's ruling tandem.

The boyish 45-year-old Medvedev, who tweets and blogs actively, became the first Russian leader to personally take reporters' questions during the news conference that lasted more than two hours. Speaking at a business school in the Moscow suburb of Skolkovo — one of his pet projects — Medvedev said his view of Russia's modernization differs from Putin's.

"He believes that modernization is a calm, gradual movement," Medvedev said. "But I think that we have a chance and enough forces to conduct that modernization faster."

Asked if the release of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky would pose any threat to the Russian public, Medvedev said it would pose "absolutely no danger," but stopped short of saying if he plans to pardon him.

Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, welcomed Medvedev's statement but said the president "did not speak about something that logically follows that statement — when Khodorkovsky will be released."

Russian liberals and rights activists have long called on Medvedev to pardon Khodorkovsky, whose trial and imprisonment have been broadly seen as a vendetta by Putin for the millionaire's challenging of the Kremlin political and economic power. The case has stained Russia's image abroad.

While incomplete, Medvedev's statement on Khodorkovsky clearly defied Putin, who called the tycoon a thief and declared he should stay in prison just before Khodorkovsky's latest conviction in December.

While registering some disagreements, Medvedev emphasized that he and Putin share the same strategic goals and similar policy approaches.

"Our approaches to key issues of national development are very close," Medvedev said. "That doesn't mean that we agree on everything, that would have been very dull and wrong. But strategically we are very close. Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to work together."

Despite leaving the presidency after two terms in 2008 to become prime minister, Putin has remained Russia's most powerful politician.

He and Medvedev have been evasive about their plans for March's presidential elections. They both have said they would decide later whether they would run, but most analysts expect Putin to reclaim the nation's top job.

Medvedev said Wednesday it is too early to announce his election plans.

He took a tough posture on foreign policy issues, saying that Moscow wants strong guarantees from Washington that its prospective missile defense wouldn't threaten Russia's security, adding that a failure to cooperate on a missile shield could trigger a new arms race.

"In that case, we will have to develop our offensive nuclear potential, that would be a very bad scenario that would throw us back to the Cold War," Medvedev said.

Russia's relations with the U.S. have improved significantly, thanks to a new arms reduction treaty called New START that Medvedev signed with President Barack Obama, but Russia still sees U.S.-led missile defense plans as a potential threat to its security.

Russia agreed to consider NATO's proposal last fall to cooperate on the missile shield, but insisted the system should be run jointly, a demand rejected by NATO.

Medvedev also warned the West that Moscow won't support any U.N. resolutions that would open the way for interference in Syria's internal affairs. He said Syrian President Bashar Assad must be given a chance to fulfill his reform promises and warned against foreign interference in the country. Assad has faced a wave of public protests and responded with a deadly crackdown.

Medvedev said Russia is unhappy with the way the West used a U.N. resolution to protect Libya civilians — a document that now backs NATO airstrikes against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces — and won't back such a resolution on Syria.

Russia abstained in the U.N. vote that sanctioned the international military operation in Libya.

Putin has made frequent anti-Western statements that play well with average Russians and helped boost his popularity. While Medvedev has taken a more friendly attitude toward the West, he apparently felt he needed to stop looking too submissive with NATO.

Putin recently has called for creation of a new political movement to expand his support base, a move widely interpreted as an opening salvo in his re-election bid.

Medvedev wouldn't name political parties that could form his support base, if he decides to run for president. Medvedev has sought to appeal to the business community and the educated urban elite with pledges to cut the red tape, combat corruption and develop new high-tech economy. But critics say he has failed to achieve any of his goals as Putin continued to call the shots.

Until now, while Putin has held news conferences attracting hundreds of journalists and televised call-in shows, Medvedev had limited himself to short press appearances and television interviews.

Medvedev made new promises Wednesday to reduce red tape and remove bureaucratic hurdles, including streamlining vehicle inspection rules that have angered Russian motorists.

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Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.