MOSCOW -- On the eve of the annual Group of Eight summit that opens today in Germany, President Bush offered his most strident rebuke to date of his Russian counterpart, saying that Russia has "derailed" democratic reforms, and that the result had "troubling implications" for democracy.
Bush's blunt comments in the Czech Republic added to the escalating rhetoric that has characterized increasingly frayed relations between Russia and the West in recent days. And they set the stage for potentially prickly talks between Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin at a time when diplomatic friction has infected the two leaders' widely publicized friendship.
Last week, in an interview with journalists from G-8 nations, Putin threatened to aim missiles at Europe if the United States pursues a plan to build a missile shield in Russia's backyard - including a radar detection system in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland. Also last week, Russia tested a ballistic missile said to have the capability to carry multiple warheads, a test Putin all but boasted was in response to America's anti-missile plans.
The U.S. claims that the system is needed to counter a threat from Iran and poses no danger to Russia.
While Bush stressed yesterday that Russia was not an enemy, as it was during the Cold War, and acknowledged that individual nations embrace democracy "at different speeds," he said that democratic principles, at their core, are universal.
"In Russia, reforms that once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development," Bush said in remarks in Prague, standing with Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president who helped topple communism nearly 20 years ago in the Velvet Revolution.
"The United States will continue to build our relationships with these countries," Bush said, also singling out China, Pakistan and Egypt, "and we will do it without abandoning our principles or our values. America can maintain a friendship and push a nation toward democracy at the same time."
Sarah E. Mendelson, senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, pointed out that human rights activists in Russia and abroad have been saying what Bush said for years. But Bush - and President Bill Clinton before him - has largely chosen to ignore Russia's return to a highly centralized government with little regard for civil society, human rights and political dissent, she said.
"Within parts of the executive branch, there are increasing amounts of frustration and exasperation with what's going on with democracy in Russia," Mendelson said yesterday. But her first reaction to Bush's speech was: "What took you so long?"
Bush and Putin are scheduled to meet one-on-one tomorrow in Heiligendamm, Germany, site of this year's G-8, and again next month at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Russia, emboldened by its natural resource wealth, has become increasingly assertive and aggressive on the world stage - putting it at odds with America and Europe in recent months.
Russia lashed out at Estonia after that nation dismantled and moved a monument to the Soviet Union's Red Army, imposing an unofficial ban on Estonian products and otherwise disrupting trade links. And it has maintained a ban on Polish meat products that the European Union has charged is motivated not by health concerns, as Russia claims, but by politics. It also opposes a plan, supported by the United States, to grant independence to Kosovo.
In a speech last month in Red Square on Victory Day, a significant and widely celebrated holiday commemorating the Allies' victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, Putin used references that seem to compare American foreign policy with that of Germany's Third Reich.
Less than a week later, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during an official visit to Moscow that she and Putin had agreed that such rhetoric was "not helpful" and that the two nations would tone it down.
Since then, harsh words have been flowing nonetheless.
In his interview with journalists Friday at his residence outside Moscow, Putin held back little in speaking of disagreements with his international partners, seeming to wish to stoke the flames rather than put them out.
"One of the major difficulties today is that certain members of the international community are absolutely convinced that their opinion is the correct one," Putin said in a transcript of the interview posted on the Kremlin Web site. "And of course this is hardly conducive to creating the trusting atmosphere that I believe is crucial for finding more than simply mutually acceptable solutions, for finding optimal solutions.
"However, we also think that we should not dramatize anything unduly," he said. "If we express our opinions openly, honestly and forthrightly, then this does not imply that we are looking for confrontation."
In the interview, Putin called "foolishness" Britain's request for the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, the Russian businessman who is Scotland Yard's prime suspect in the November killing of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.
In response to a question on whether he was a "pure democrat," Putin replied that he is.
"The problem is that I'm all alone, the only one of my kind in the whole wide world," he said. "Just look at what's happening in North America, it's simply awful: torture, homeless people, Guantanamo, people detained without trial and investigation. Just look at what's happening in Europe: harsh treatment of demonstrators, rubber bullets and tear gas used first in one capital, then in another, demonstrators killed on the streets. ... There is no one to talk to since Mahatma Gandhi died."
Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, stressed yesterday during a visit to Seoul, South Korea, that Russia would do whatever it needed to counter any threat - including the planned missile system in Eastern Europe.
"Everything that we have done and will do is based on our responsibility, and the responsibility of the Russian government, to do everything possible to avoid new threats that Russia may be subjected to," Lavrov said, according to the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti. "That is why military planners have the right to make decisions, which are necessary to defend the country."
After Putin threatened to aim Russian missiles at Europe - more a symbolic threat than actual, as missiles can be redirected - NATO denounced his remarks as "unhelpful" and "unwelcome."