President Vladimir Putin said he valued the partnership of President George W. Bush, but voiced suspicion the US might be behind what the Kremlin sees as efforts to isolate Russia and even destabilize it.
With Russia already feeling hemmed in by US bases in formerly Soviet Central Asia and US military trainers in Georgia, Putin has taken issue with Western, and particularly US, activism in Ukraine, where the presidential election that sparked a weeks-long crisis goes into a third round this weekend.
His emotions came boiling to the surface during a three-hour Kremlin news conference on Thursday.
Putin was asked for a reaction to an interview in which Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said that "for every superpower, Russia without Ukraine is better than Russia with Ukraine."
"If we interpret this [statement by Kwasniewski] as striving to limit Russia's ability to develop relations with its neighbors, then it means a desire to isolate the Russian Federation," Putin said testily.
"I don't think that is the goal of US policy," he said, but added he would ask Bush about it when they meet in Slovakia in February. Putin then blamed the US, without elaborating, for a policy on Chechnya "aimed at creating elements that would destabilize the Russian Federation."
The comments were in line with Putin's increasingly combative attitude toward the West and especially the US. The Kremlin is convinced that the US is behind a campaign to install Ukraine's pro-Western opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko at the helm of the nation Russia has always regarded as its main satellite.
Putin has long been used to reticence from Bush, but even if Bush, until now, had refrained from direct criticism of Putin's policies at home, he challenged Moscow over its involvement in the Ukrainian presidential campaign and stood firm on insisting that the fraudulent second round be held again.
Analysts close to the Kremlin have accused Poland of working in Ukraine at the behest of the US, which they allege is trying to deepen its influence in Europe and push Poland to the top ranks of the EU.
President Aleksander Kwas-niewski told reporters in Warsaw Thursday that Putin's remarks were unfair.
"The words said today by Putin, in my opinion, are unfair words, a price that Poland and I must pay for our involvement in solving the political crisis in Ukraine," Kwasniewski said.
"In the interview I said that Poland and the world need Russia to be present in solving the crisis in the Ukraine and that a democratic Russia and democratic Ukraine will serve the world in the best way," he said.
Putin said his personal relationship with Bush remained strong, but he has bristled at US criticism of the Kremlin's political restructuring proposals, which include an end to direct elections for governors.
He tried to reassure a reporter who expressed similar misgivings that Russia would not turn back to the Soviet era.
"I don't think we should move toward an authoritarian state, especially a Soviet-style authoritarian state. That wouldn't help create favorable conditions for economic development and would limit the society's ability to control the government. That would be excessive," he said.