MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said NATO military exercises in Georgia did not help efforts to rebuild Moscow’s relations with the United States in comments published on Sunday.
Putin, speaking in an interview with Japanese media before a trip to Tokyo, said the NATO war games were a signal of support for the Georgian authorities which last week clashed with protesters demanding President Mikheil Saakashvili resign.
When asked about Washington’s efforts to reset relations with Moscow, Putin said: “As to the NATO military exercises in Georgia, this is of course a signal in the other direction.
“We really hope that today’s leaders of the United States will hit the pedal properly to put a brake on the negative trends in our ... ties and take the necessary steps to make sure they really gain new substance.”
Russia says the war games are dangerous muscle flexing by the Western military alliance that have raised tensions in the Caucasus nine months after Russia repelled a bid by Saakashvili to retake the pro-Moscow rebel region of South Ossetia.
Russia’s relations with the United States sank to a post-Cold War low after the war in Georgia and Russia’s subsequent recognition of South Ossetia and another rebel region, Abkhazia, as independent states.
U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, have said they want to rebuild ties, but Georgia — a transit route for Caspian oil and gas to Europe — remains a sticking point.
Moscow says the NATO war games send the wrong signal to Saakashvili, who has faced weeks of protests by domestic opponents demanding he resign for blundering into the war with Russia and crushing democratic freedoms.
Saakashvili, who is reviled in Moscow, has refused to resign. He faced a mutiny at a Georgian military base on the eve of the NATO exercises, which started on May 6.
“Against all this they decide to hold military exercises. It cannot be seen as anything but support for the ruling regime,” said Putin, according to a transcript of the interview supplied by the Russian government.
“Even if you take the traditional approach of our Western partners — the United States and Western Europe — to democratic problems then no such standards are being adhered to today in Georgia,” Putin said.
“So why hold military exercises there which give such a clear signal of support to the ruling regime? We consider this is movement in the opposite direction.”
NATO says Russia was fully informed about the war games in advance and had been invited to participate.
Putin said there had been positive signals from Washington on efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons before a Cold War arms treaty, known as START I, expires in December.
The former Kremlin chief said Russia was linking the talks on finding a replacement for START I to concerns about plans initiated by former U.S. President George W. Bush to deploy an anti-missile system in Europe.
“The new U.S. administration has not yet made a decision on the future of the anti-missile defense system, at least in relation to Europe,” Putin said.
“Russia will of course link questions about anti-missile defense, and all related issues, to those about strategic offensive weapons,” Putin said. A new round of talks on nuclear weapons cuts will take place later this month in Moscow.
Editing by Philippa Fletcher