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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cohen Says Putin Pursues Democracy ""Almost By Decree""

WASHINGTON - U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, using unusually blunt language in an end-of-tenure speech Wednesday, questioned whether Russia under President Vladimir Putin will complete its transition to democracy or "revert to the past."

"It's unclear whether Russia is going to make this transition to free minds and free markets as have some of its Eastern European neighbors," Cohen said.

"At times its seems to me that President Putin is intent on pursuing democracy almost by decree."

Cohen did not elaborate about Putin's approach but made clear he sees cause for concern, noting that a recent National Intelligence Council report predicted Russia was headed for further decline over the next 15 years.

"We have to look to see whether or not Russia is going to pursue a course of seeking cooperation and full integration into European affairs and a better relation with the United States or whether or not it's going to revert to the past and seek to achieve some kind of major role on the world scene through the use of force or the threat of it," Cohen said.

Speaking at the National Press Club 10 days before he leaves office, Cohen stressed that in some respects Russia has made important progress since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union that ended the Cold War and put Russia on a path toward democracy.

As encouraging examples, Cohen cited Russia's participation in NATO-led peacekeeping in Bosnia and Kosovo and last year's agreement with Washington to establish a joint early warning center in Moscow to monitor potential missile threats.

Cohen noted that Putin's strong opposition to U.S. plans to build a national missile defense would present a challenge to the incoming Bush administration, which has made missile defense a high priority.

"And I think there's cause for concern with the continued deterioration in Russian conventional and strategic forces," he said.

This deterioration has caused Russian military planners to emphasize threats to use tactical, or battlefield, nuclear weapons to deter a large-scale conventional attack.