RUSSIA'S Vladimir Putin enjoys teasing the West especially when he thinks he detects a weakness in its policies. But his attempt at the EU-Russia summit in Portugal on Friday to liken America's proposal for a missile defence system in Europe to the Soviet Union's missile installations in Cuba in 1962 was wide of the mark. Although it was audacious of him to remind everyone of a major Soviet blunder, there is no comparison to be made between the US's current proposals and Nikita Khruschev's misguided adventure. The missiles on Cuba were there for offensive purposes and were installed in secret.

By contrast, if the Bush administration is to be trusted, America's missile defence system is purely defensive in character and its planned presence has been widely publicised. It was curious, however, that having made the comparison, Mr Putin then paid a tribute to President Bush who, he said, he considered to be a friend with whom he could deal.

President Putin is a difficult man to judge. Many of his policies seem to be allowing Russia to revert to bad political habits but at the same time he comes across as a principled person in relation to his own position. For instance, there has been a widespread assumption that he is manoeuvring to return to the presidency after a constitutionally necessary retirement from it next year. But on Friday he said: “I am not going to change the constitution to serve my own needs. I will not run for president for a third time.”


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