Arms race

Putin, who was replaced by Dmitry Medvedev as president in May, said Russia did not have any "imperial ambitions" but warned the West against starting an arms race in Europe by stationing a US missile defence shield near Russia's borders.

Referring to the deployment of interceptor missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic, Putin said: "Our targeting of these countries will happen as soon as these missiles are brought.

"Please do not instigate an arms race in Europe. It is not needed. What should we do? Sit pretty while they deploy missiles?"

Washington says the shield is aimed against what it calls "rogue states" like Iran, not Russia, but Moscow says it does not believe the US explanation.

The prime minister's remarks were backed up Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, who visited Poland on Thursday.

Lavrov said the defence shield posed a direct threat to his country's security but that Moscow remained open to further talks.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Radoslaw Sikorski, his Polish counterpart, Lavrov said: "We cannot fail to see the risks emerging as a result of US strategic forces coming closer to our borders.

"We are certain this system in Europe can have no other target for a long time to come but Russia's strategic forces."

But Lavrov balanced his comments with a call for dialogue.

He said: "We don't see Poland itself as a source of threats to the Russian Federation... We don't agree on everything but we appreciate dialogue."

Georgia denial

Russian troops are due to withdraw from checkpoints around Gori in Georgia [EPA]
Moscow says it was defending Russian nationals when it sent in troops to halt Georgia's offensive into the breakaway region of South Ossetia in August.

Georgia says Russia has annexed the territory and a second breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia.

Seeking to reassure the West over the recent fighting there, Putin said: "We do not have any desire or basis for infringing the sovereignty of former Soviet republics."

In Georgia itself, there were increasing signs on Thursday that Russian forces were withdrawing in line with a pledge on Monday by Medvedev after he met an EU delegation in Moscow.

Russian troops were expected to leave five checkpoints around the Georgian port of Poti and the town of Senaki by Monday.

Ukraine warning

In a separate development, Moscow warned Ukraine, another former Soviet republic, over Kiev's pro-Georgian stance in the recent conflict, as well as its "unfriendly" attitude to Moscow.

It said Ukraine's ambitions to join the Nato military alliance threaten existing friendship agreements between the two countries.

Relations between Russia and ex-Soviet Ukraine have been strained since the 2004 Orange Revolution brought Kremlin critics to power and have deteriorated further in recent months.

In a statement on its website, Russia's foreign ministry said: "Recently the Ukrainian authorities have had policies that we can only assess as unfriendly towards Russia."
 
Referring to the recent fighting in Georgia, the statement said: "By supplying heavy military hardware to the Georgian army the Ukrainian side partially bears the responsibility for the bloodshed."

"We heard no words of regret or sympathy in connection with the death of civilians in Tskhinvali [the South Ossetian capital]. On the contrary, the Ukrainian president tried to pin the blame for the bloodshed on Russia."
 
The statement also accused Kiev of violating the rights of its Russian-speaking minority and banning Russian politicians from entering the country.