Arms deals, racketeering – Putin accused of running 'mafia state'

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Vladimir Putin told US officials to keep their noses out of Russian affairs in a combative response to criticisms of the way his country was run revealed by leaked diplomatic cables.

His appearance on the US talk show Larry King Live came before new cables were published last night that suggested that Russia under Putin was a "virtual mafia state" and detailed a political system that incorporated money laundering, arms trafficking and which had fostered close links between figures in organised crime and the security services.

One of the US cables released previously said that "Russian democracy has disappeared" and described the country's government as "an oligarchy run by the security services" in a statement published by Wikileaks and attributed to American Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

The Russian Prime Minister yesterday remarked tersely that Mr Gates was "deeply misled" and advised Washington not to meddle in the political systems of other countries. He said that he found the US presidential voting system unfair but accepted it was a US tradition. Mr Putin also promised that Moscow would be forced to deploy new nuclear weapons and "strike forces" if Russia was shut out of Nato plans for a new missile shield.

So far the Wikileaks documents have not given Russia watchers any radically new information about the workings of the government, but have exposed a consistently critical line among US officials, with regards to Russia. Mr Putin appeared particularly irritated by another leaked cable quoted by the New York Times, which cast a wry look over Russia's ruling "tandem" of Mr Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. The president is constitutionally much more powerful than his prime minister, but in reality, Mr Putin has the most authority, and many expect him to return to the Kremlin at the next election in 2012. One diplomatic cable referred to Mr Putin as "Batman" to Mr Medvedev's "Robin"; another called the hardman prime minister an "alpha dog", while the president was described as "pale and indecisive".

"To be honest with you, we didn't suspect that this would be done with such arrogance, with such a push and, you know, being so unethically done," Mr Putin said. He added that the Wikileaks affair was "no catastrophe".

Russian Reporter magazine also published what it said were translations of cables it had obtained from Wikileaks this week, including assessments by American diplomats of various shadowy Kremlin figures.

One said that Vladislav Surkov, seen as the Kremlin's chief ideologue and despised by civil rights activists, was split between "envy and disrespect" for the US; others discussed allegations of massive corruption among Mr Putin's closest allies.

Mr Putin was returning to Larry King Live after a disastrous appearance on the same show in 2000. He had become Russian president that year and had been widely criticised for not cutting off his holiday to deal with the Kursk submarine tragedy, when 118 died.