Relations between the US and Russia sank to the lowest point in a decade on Wednesday when Russian President Vladimir Putin harshly rebuked Washington for its criticism last week and compared the US to a hungry wolf that "eats and listens to no one."
Putin, stung by an attack from US Vice President Dick Cheney, used his annual state of the nation address to denounce US expansionism and military spending. He also questioned Washington's record on democratic rights. Although he refrained from mentioning the US by name, it was clear that the "wolf" in question referred to Washington.
The war of words is a long way from the optimism with which Bush said, after his first face-to-face meeting with Putin in 2001, that he had looked into the Russian president's soul and liked what he saw.
Cheney, reflecting Washington's growing disenchantment, told a conference in Lithuania, last week that Russia was sending "mixed signals" over democracy, as well as using its energy resources to "intimidate and blackmail" neighbors.
Putin, in his speech, noted that the US military budget was 25 times the size of Russia's and said the US had turned its home into a castle.
"Good for them," the Russian president said, "but this means we must make our own home strong and reliable. Because we see what is happening in the world. We see it."
He added, in what appeared to be a reference to the US-led invasion of Iraq and its approach to Iran: "As they say, `comrade wolf knows whom to eat. He eats without listening and he is clearly not going to listen to anyone.'" He accused the US of hypocrisy over its criticism of Russia's patchy human rights record.
"Where is all this pathos about protecting human rights and democracy when it comes to the need to pursue their own interests?," Putin said.
In another veiled reference to Washington's approach to Iraq and Iran, he said: "Methods of force rarely give the desired result and often their consequences are even more terrible than the original threat." He added that Russia was "unambiguously" against the spread of nuclear weapons.
In another apparent jibe aimed at the US, he said countries should not use Russia's negotiations over membership of the WTO to make unrelated demands.
"The negotiations for letting Russia into the WTO should not become a bargaining chip for questions that have nothing in common with the activities of this organization," Putin said.
US senators visiting Moscow last month said Congress would consider its application in the light of Russia's behavior on human rights and Iran.
Putin said Russia had to resist foreign pressure by bolstering its army, which is currently a group of a million conscripts galvanized by special forces and nuclear weapons. "We must always be ready to counter any attempts to pressure Russia in order to strengthen positions at our expense," he said. "The stronger our military is, the less temptation there will be to exert such pressure on us."
Much of his hour-long address was dedicated to Russia's demographic plight, which some forecasts have suggested could see the population fall from 142 million to 100 million by 2050.
"The number of our citizens shrinks by an average of 700,000 people a year," he said, promising to double state payouts for a first child to US$56 a month, with US$112 for a second one.