"I believe ... this is a single-minded attempt to create a certain image of Russia which allows [Washington] to influence our internal and external policy," Putin said in the interview posted on the Kremlin's official site www.kremlin.ru.

  

"Russia hasn't only said but also repeatedly demonstrated by its entire policy in the last 15 years that we do not only want to be America's partner, but a friend as well," he said.

   

"But sometimes I have the impression that America does not need friends. We have the impression that America needs vassals to command."

 

Time magazine says Putin has restored Russia's status [GALLO/Getty] 

He said the United States was trying to "seek problems inside Russia all the time".

   

"That's why they tell us and all the others, 'Well, let's pinch and reproach them a bit, because they [Russians] are not quite civilised, they are still wild, they have just jumped off a tree. This is why we must comb their hair a bit - they cannot do it themselves - and shave them and wash off their mud'."

   

Putin, who is due to step down in 2008, has overseen an oil-fuelled economic boom and sought to develop an independent role for Moscow in international affairs during his eight-year rule.

   

While investors flock to Russia, Moscow's foreign policy rifts with the West have widened during Putin's presidency.

 

'Great mistake'

   

The 55-year-old ex-KGB agent has been criticised for backtracking on democratic reforms.

 

He has accused the West of meddling in Russia's internal affairs by financing its liberal opposition which he dismisses as "a bunch of marginals".

  

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Putin said Russia must get rid of the legacy of its Soviet-era history when the Soviet Union tried to lead a universal communist revolution.

   

"This was a great mistake," he said. "We don't want to rule anyone, we don't want to be a superpower of any kind. ... But we want to have enough forces to be able to defend ourselves, to protect our interests."

   

Asked to explain earlier statements that the demise of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century", Putin replied: "I meant not the political aspect of the Soviet Union's break-up, but the humanitarian one."

   

He said 25 million ethnic Russians became foreigners in other ex-Soviet states after the Soviet Union's collapse, often having no means to visit their motherland.

   

Putin has said he will influence Russian politics after stepping down as president.

 

He said this week he would agree to be Russia's new prime minister if his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev won a March 2 presidential election.