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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

President Speaks to Muslim World

Speaking to Al-Jazeera in particular and the Arab world in general, President Vladimir Putin on Friday criticized the United States' positions on Chechnya and Iraq and said Russia retains the right to use preemptive strikes if the UN continues to be sidelined in decisions on dealing with a security threat.

"With preemptive strikes, we start from the assumption that international law is most important. Any use of force is appropriate only in the case of a decision by the UN Security Council," Putin said in remarks broadcast on the Qatar-based network and picked up by Interfax. If it becomes standard international policy to no longer seek UN legitimacy, "then Russia retains the right to act in the same way."

Putin gave the interview from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, where he was attending a meeting of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, before heading to Thailand to participate in an Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

One day earlier, after Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad opened the forum with a controversial speech in which he said Jews ruled the world, Putin also addressed the assembly. In prepared remarks, which were later posted on the Kremlin web site, he said that Russian history disproves the theory of a clash of civilizations.

Russian Muslims are an integral part of a multi-ethnic Russia, he said, "and we see the strength of our country in this inter-religious harmony." According to a report in Kommersant, Putin was interrupted three times with applause.

On Sunday, Putin was careful to avoid any criticism of Mahathir, emphasizing again that Russia wants to strengthen its ties with the Muslim world.

In this trip, "Putin is reaching out, as they say," said Dmitri Trenin, a Eurasian security specialist at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "He wants to develop relations directly with Muslim nations, so as to distance himself from association with the United States and Israel," with which Russia also has close ties. "He also wants to counter the perception of Russia as an Orthodox country and the chance of Chechnya being seen as a fight between Christianity and Islam."

In the course of the Al-Jazeera interview, Putin also called for a bigger role for the United Nations in Iraq, where Russia, France and Germany especially have bristled at the United States' reluctance to hand over power to an elected Iraqi government.

The Security Council's most recent resolution, which Russia supported, "is undoubtedly a step in the right direction" because it raises the UN's role in Iraq's reconstruction, but Russia wants to see the United States lessen its grip on the country before it will send troops or financial assistance.

Nor did Putin waste the opportunity to take a dig at U.S. policy on Chechnya, saying criticism of the elections in which Akhmad Kadyrov, backed by the Kremlin and running virtually unopposed, was elected president of the republic was hypocritical, given the problems the United States has in coping with insurgent threats to its own hold on Iraq.

"I think that ... it's an attempt to distract attention from their own mistakes," he told the television station.

Kadyrov was part of the delegation that accompanied Putin on the 15-hour flight to the OIC meeting, as part of the full-court press to convince conference attendees of the sincerity of Russia's outreach. Other prominent Muslims like Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov, Kabardino-Balkaria President Valery Kokov and Ismail Berdiyev, the mufti for the North Caucasus, were also part of the delegation, according to Kommersant.

On first glance, the tone of Putin's remarks could seem ominous, particularly when he was speaking about the use of pre-emptive strikes and Russia's plans to replace decommissioned SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missiles, which he called "probably the most powerful missiles in the world."

But in content, none of what he told Al-Jazeera is new, Trenin said. His colleague Andrew Kuchins, an international affairs expert and Carnegie's director, agreed, as did Ivan Safranchuk at the Center for Defense Information.

"Putin always knows the audience he's talking to. Here, it's obviously the Islamic world," Kuchins said Friday, noting however that the remarks were "a little edgier" than normal and reminiscent of Cold War-era rhetoric. He attributed this partly to Russia's disgruntlement over the handling of the Iraq war and partly to election-season posturing.

"Generally the line is pro-Western, but sometimes it is harder, sometimes it is softer," Safranchuk said. The Al-Jazeera statements were strongly worded, but in an interview earlier this month with The New York Times, Putin was "extremely soft" on the United States' failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he observed, tracing this seeming dissonance to Putin's September summit with U.S. President George W. Bush.

"They consolidated their gains and gave each other a year off from strict commitments, recognizing they would both need room to criticize the other for the benefit of their re-election campaigns," he said. "They'll disagree, but they won't go as far as to undermine each other internally."

"It's [Russia's] default position to behave like a superpower and mirror U.S. policy," Kuchins said. "The thinking is: 'If the U.S. isn't going to follow UN requirements, we're not going to as well, though it's not realistic given Russia's diminution of power."