Vilnius, Lithuania Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday accused Russia of cracking down on religious and political rights and using its energy reserves as "tools of intimidation or blackmail." It was a hard slap at Vladimir Putin as the United States seeks Russia's cooperation in punishing Iran.
Cheney's criticism - some of the administration's toughest language about Russia - came just two months before President Bush joins Putin in St. Petersburg for a summit of major industrial powers. Cheney warned that Russia's backsliding could harm Moscow's relations with the United States and Europe.
"Russia has a choice to make. And there is no question that a return to democratic reform in Russia will generate future success for its people and greater respect among fellow nations," the vice president said in remarks to Eastern European leaders who govern in Moscow's enormous shadow.
Russian officials reacted angrily.
"Cheney's speech looks like a provocation and interference in Russia's internal affairs in terms of its content, form and place," former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin expressed annoyance that Russia had not been invited to the conference of former Soviet republics and allies.
The White House said Cheney's criticism was a reiteration of concerns expressed by Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Early this year the administration angered Russia with criticism that the Kremlin had used its energy resources as a political weapon by sharply raising natural gas prices to Western-leaning Ukraine amid a sharp dispute that led to a halt of gas exports to other European nations. An agreement eventually ended the impasse, but it raised questions of Russia's dependability as a supplier.
Washington has since tried to avoid provoking Russia, during sensitive negotiations over the international response to Iran's disputed nuclear program. Russia stands as the main obstacle to tough penalties or other measures to deter Iran from pursuing nuclear technology the West says is part of a drive to build a bomb.