by RAY FLEMING

VLADIMIR Putin's cold-war-style words yesterday were an unpleasant way to close a year which has had problems enough without ending on a fractious note from Moscow. Although Mr Putin's remarks were rather hard to follow and in some respects apparently self-contradictory he seemed to be accusing the United States of being less than forthcoming over its missile shield defense programme and consequently forcing Russia to increase its weapons development in self-defence. This will have come as a surprise to President Obama who last July reversed former President Bush's missile shield plans in Europe and was promptly praised by Russia's President Medvedev for having done so.

However, this apparent policy confusion between president and prime minister in Moscow may actually help to explain what is going on. There are signs that Mr Putin is already planning to stand again for election as president in 2012; although he currently defers to Dmitri Medvedev there is little doubt that he remains the strongest political figure in Russia and has the support of those who think that Medvedev is too inclined to be reasonable in his dealings with the United States.

Russia is entitled to run its politics in its own way but the danger is that the renewal of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the United States, which expired on December 5, might get entangled in these domestic issues at a time that its extension is highly desirable.

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