MOSCOW -- A hawkish Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed Thursday his intention to wield significant power as premier when he leaves the Kremlin after next month's presidential election.
Putin also attacked Western support for independence in Kosovo and sparked NATO's anger by threatening to target missiles at former Soviet bloc countries that host bases from the military alliance or a US missile defence shield.
Speaking to journalists just two weeks before a March 2 presidential election almost certain to be won by his chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev, Putin, 55, confirmed he was "ready to work as prime minister."
His statement -- the most clear yet on how he intends to retain significant power on stepping down this May at the end of a second four-year term -- was met with derision in Washington.
It is "certainly not the kind of statement that is consistent with a healthy, thriving, vibrant democracy," said US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "Usually those kinds of questions are answered by the people of the nation first."
Crucially, Putin signalled he wants a leading role for the premiership, in contrast to the largely technical function currently performed by Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov. He also said he is ready to stay in the post for a long period.
"The president is the guarantor of the constitution. He sets the main directions for internal and external policies. But the highest executive power in the country is the Russian government, headed by the prime minister," Putin told a packed press conference.
He said he would be premier "as long as Medvedev is president and if I see that I am meeting goals that I myself have fixed."
The prime minister plan, first aired in November, is seen by analysts as a formula allowing Putin to remain the country's top leader under a weak Medvedev presidency.
Putin himself seemed to allude to this when he indicated he would not hang a picture of president Medvedev in the prime minister's office -- standard practice for Russian bureaucrats.
"I don't need to hang his portrait," he said.
But Putin, accused by critics of establishing an authoritarian regime during his eight years in power, denied being power hungry.
"All these eight years I worked like a slave, from morning to night," Putin told the more than four-hour long press conference with hundreds of journalists, many of whom interrupted him with loud applause.
However, "I was never tempted" to change the constitution and take a third Kremlin term, Putin said. "They say the biggest addiction is to power, but I have never felt this."
Separately, Putin warned Russia would "be forced to aim missiles" at countries perceived as a threat, specifically Ukraine, which is applying to join NATO, and the Czech Republic and Poland, which are planning to host a US anti-missile defence system.
His threat sparked a quick reaction from NATO headquarters, where a spokesman said that no outside country had veto power over who can join the alliance. Earlier this week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice branded similar comments by Putin "reprehensible rhetoric."
Putin also attacked "immoral" Western backing for independence in the Serbian province of Kosovo, and dismissed Western efforts to bypass Russia with alternative routes to Central Asia's energy riches as "incorrect," "stupid" and "unprofessional."
Looking at his legacy, Putin painted a rosy picture of what he said were Russia's booming economy and strengthening statehood.
"I don't see any serious failures," Putin said. "All the goals we set were achieved."
Putin referred to steadily rising GDP growth and an easing off in 2007 of Russia's catastrophic demographic decline. He said Russia was now "one of the economic leaders" on a par with Thailand, Malaysia and other Asian tigers.
Putin acknowledged that Russia faced a problem with rising inflation, currently running at almost 12 percent, and said "we could have done some things more effectively."
However, he described his achievements as historic, saying that in the 1990s "we didn't have a united country. We didn't even have a national anthem." Putin said that under his rule: "We founded a state."
Critics at home and abroad have described the March 2 election as rigged to ensure Medvedev's victory and the main Western election monitoring organisations have decided not to send missions.
Putin scoffed at criticisms from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), saying they would be better off "staying at home to teach their wives how to cook cabbage soup."
Copyright 2008 AFP.