By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin signaled in an interview aired on Thursday that Russia was not ready to shift its stance on Syria, and suggested Western nations were relying on groups such as al Qaeda to help drive President Bashar al-Assad from power.
Putin held out hope for an end to a dispute with Washington on missile defense if President Barack Obama were re-elected in November, telling Russia's RT television he was "an honest person who really wants to change much for the better".
Putin took aim at Obama's Republican rival Mitt Romney, calling his criticism of Russia "mistaken" campaign rhetoric and suggesting a Romney presidency would widen the rift over the anti-missile shield the United States is deploying in Europe.
In some of his most extensive public comments since he started a six-year term in May, Putin dismissed Western criticism on issues ranging from Syria to the conviction of three anti-government protesters from the punk band Pussy Riot.
Putin was asked whether Moscow should rethink its stance on Syria after vetoing three Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions designed to pressure Assad to end violence that has killed 20,000 people.
"Why should only Russia re-evaluate its position?" he said. "Maybe our partners in the negotiation process should re-evaluate their position."
Without naming any country, he hinted the United States was looking to militants to help topple Assad and would regret it, drawing a parallel with U.S. support for the mujahideen who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the Cold War.
"Today somebody is using al Qaeda fighters or people from other organizations with the same extreme views to achieve their goals in Syria," Putin said. "This is a very dangerous and short-sighted policy."
He noted that the United States had imprisoned many alleged Islamic militants at Guantanamo Bay and said it might as well "open the gates to Guantanamo and let all the Guantanamo inmates into Syria, let them fight. It's the same thing".
Putin has signed laws in his new term that critics say are part of a campaign to suppress dissent after the biggest protests of his 12 years in power. Putin said he acted to instill order and that he had taken steps to improve democracy.
"What is 'tightening the screws'?" he said. "If this means the demand that everyone, including representatives of the opposition, obey the law, then yes, this demand will be consistently implemented."
Putin declined to comment on the sentences handed down to three women from punk band Pussy Riot jailed for two years for performing a raucous anti-Putin song inside a Moscow cathedral.
"I know what is going on with Pussy Riot, but I am staying out of it completely", he told the channel.
But he suggested the band's notoriety had forced its "indecent" name into public discourse, reinforcing the point by prodding his interviewer to translate the word "pussy".
"I want to direct your attention to the moral side of the issue," he added, describing a previous group-sex stunt that included at least one of the convicted women and adding a off-color joke of his own about group sex.
Putin said abuses committed against the Russian Orthodox Church and other faiths during the Soviet era made the Pussy Riot protest particularly offensive and meant "the state is obliged to protect the feelings of believers".
Kremlin opponents and defense lawyers accused Putin of influencing last month's trial and sentence, which the United States and European nations branded disproportionate.
"IMAGE OF AN ENEMY"
Putin condemned British and U.S. efforts to bar Russians linked to the 2009 death in jail of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested by the same law enforcement officers he accused of a multi-million dollar fraud.
He said Russia would respond in kind if the United States adopted a law requiring the government to deny visas and freeze assets to Russians linked to Magnitsky's death.
Relations between Moscow and Washington improved after Obama moved to "reset" ties, but have been strained by disputes over issues ranging from global security to human rights.
Putin said Russia would continue to talk with Washington about missile defense but "protect itself and preserve the strategic balance" if the United States pushed ahead with an anti-missile shield Moscow sees as a threat.
Russia's suspicions that the shield is aimed to weaken it would only deepen if Romney were elected and pushed ahead with it because the Republican "considers us enemy No.1", Putin said.
Romney once called Russia "without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe", and has promised "less flexibility and more backbone" in policy on Russia if he wins the November 6 election.
"As for Mr. Romney's position, we understand that it is in part...campaign rhetoric, but I think it is, of course, without a doubt mistaken," Putin said.
"Because to conduct oneself like that in the international arena is the same as using the instruments of nationalism and segregation in the domestic politics of your own country."
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Jon Boyle)