MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia reserves the right to use force again to defend its interests and will not tolerate attempts by Western powers to contain it, President Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview broadcast on Wednesday.
In an end-of-year interview that signaled an uncompromising stance toward U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration, Medvedev said Russia’s war with Georgia in August showed that tough action was sometimes unavoidable.
“Russia’s interests must be secured by all means available, this is my deep conviction. First of all, by international and legal tools ... but, when necessary, by using an element of force,” Medvedev said in the interview, which was shown on Russia’s main television stations.
Touching on an economic slowdown that represents the biggest challenge to the Kremlin’s grip on power in a decade, Medvedev said Russia would weather the crisis but the rouble exchange rate would become more flexible.
That appeared to be an acknowledgement that Russia cannot sustain the billions of dollars it has been spending to support a currency that has come under immense downward pressure as prices for oil, Russia’s main export, plummet.
Medvedev ordered a massive counter-attack in August after forces under Georgia’s pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili tried to retake South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia.
The Russian leader said he was compelled to act to prevent a genocide but Western states said the Russian action — which included sending troops to within a few kilometers (miles) of the Georgian capital — was disproportionate.
Medvedev alarmed some in the West by announcing the deployment of missiles to the western outpost of Kaliningrad in retaliation for U.S. plans, bitterly opposed in Moscow, to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
In the interview, a transcript of which was posted on Medvedev’s official Internet site, www.kremlin.ru, he also attacked long-term plans by the NATO alliance to expand eastwards by allowing ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia to join.
“Today I do indeed feel an attempt to ‘put Russia in its place’. And if, sometime ago, when Russia was in a quite different situation, such attempts could still yield some results, in today’s situation .... this is simply inadmissible.”
He threatened Ukraine with sanctions if it failed to pay some $2 billion Moscow says it owes for gas. Russia has said it may cut off supplies to its neighbor from January 1, potentially disrupting gas deliveries via Ukraine to European states.
“They should pay the money to the last rouble if they do not want their economy ultimately to face sanctions by Russia,” Medvedev said.
Russia has been one of the biggest casualties of the global financial crisis, with its stock markets losing about 70 percent of their value since peaks in May and factories laying off thousands of workers.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned on Wednesday that Russia faced unprecedented danger and a senior police official predicted a surge in street protests.
Medvedev said Russia was likely to suffer a rise in unemployment, but he said the crisis — blamed in the Kremlin on lax regulation on Wall Street — was of manageable proportions.
“I believe the situation is not the most simple one, but there is no excuse for absolutely dramatic conclusions, to say nothing of hysteria. There is no ground to suppose we will have to resort to any radical measures,” he said.
Editing by Michael Roddy