The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has launched a stinging attack on US policy in the Middle East, accusing Washington of backing terrorism and playing a “double game”.
In a speech on Thursday at the annual gathering of the Valdai Club, a group of Russian and international analysts and politicians, Putin said the US had attempted to use terrorist groups as “a battering ram to overthrow regimes they don’t like”.
He said: “It’s always hard to play a double game – to declare a fight against terrorists but at the same time try to use some of them to move the pieces on the Middle Eastern chessboard in your own favour. There’s no need to play with words and split terrorists into moderate and not moderate. I would like to know what the difference is.”
Western capitals have accused Moscow of targeting moderate rebel groups during its bombing campaign in Syria, which Russia says is mainly aimed at targets linked to Islamic State. However, Putin’s talk of “playing with words” and other statements by government officials suggest Moscow believes all armed opposition to Bashar al-Assad is a legitimate target.
Putin received Assad at the Kremlin on Tuesday, and on Thursday he underlined that he considered the Syrian president and his government to be “fully legitimate”. He said the west was guilty of shortsightedness, focusing on the figure of Assad while ignoring the much greater threat of Isis.
“The so-called Islamic State [Isis] has taken control of a huge territory. How was that possible? Think about it: if Damascus or Baghdad are seized by the terrorist groups, they will be almost the official authorities, and will have a launchpad for global expansion. Is anyone thinking about this or not?”
He added: “Fifty years ago, the streets of Leningrad taught me that if a fight is inevitable, you have to hit first.”
Putin said it was “incorrect” to discuss whether or not Assad should step down, but said there was a need for dialogue.
“As far as I understand from my discussion with Assad, he’s ready for this,” said the Russian leader.
Putin said he asked Assad how he would react if Russia “found armed opposition groups who are really ready to fight terrorists” in Syria and decided to support them. Assad responded positively, according to Putin.
Asked how he saw the future of Syria and whether partition of the country could be an eventual solution, Putin said: “This would be the worst and most unacceptable option, and will not lead to the conflict being solved. It will make it worse and give it a permanent character. If you split the country into different parts they will fight among themselves forever, it will be unavoidable.”
This year the Valdai Club met at a luxury hotel in the mountain resort of Krasnaya Polyana, one of the venues for last year’s Winter Olympics. Putin arrived at the venue in a bright green Lada, part of an effort to promote the domestic car industry. He arrived late, keeping the assembled delegates waiting for nearly two hours before speaking.
A survey released on Thursday suggested that Putin’s approval rating had hit a record high of almost 90%, boosted by the Syrian airstrikes. His rating was 58.8% in January 2012 before a crackdown on opposition and the annexation of Crimea.
“Such a high level of approval for the work of the Russian president is linked, in the first instance, to events in Syria, to Russian airstrikes on terrorist positions there,” said the stat-run polling agency VTsIOM.
On the sidelines of the Valdai Club conference, Russia’s ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, said the “only logical way” to explain Britain’s behaviour in Iraq and Syria was a desire that Isis would depose Assad.
“The idea was to remove Assad using force, and to use force to seize Damascus. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, but this is the only way to explain why de facto neither Britain nor the US has ever properly fought against Isis,” Yakovenko said.
He said with the number of airstrikes Britain had carried out in Iraq, “you could have destroyed the whole region”, but instead Isis had only grown in strength.
An analysis by Reuters of Russian defence ministry data showed this week that almost 80% of Russia’s declared targets in Syria have been in areas not held by Isis. Yakovenko said he had a meeting at the Foreign Office in London last week in which he asked for intelligence to be shared on the location of Isis targets in Syria, but was rejected. He also asked for information on the Free Syrian Army.
“We are looking closely at the Syrian Free Army. We understand there is not a single command centre, and that some of these divisions have different goals. But if among the FSA there are divisions that are really ready to fight with Isis, who is our main enemy in Syria, and if you think there are people or commanders or other contacts which could be useful and to cooperate with them, we would be grateful for such information,” he said. “We were again rejected.