Combative Putin drops fresh hint over plans to stand for third term as President

Prime Minister insists another stint would not harm Russian constitution. Mary Dejevsky reports from Sochi

Russia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, yesterday delivered the strongest hint yet that he wants to stand for his old job as president in 2012.

Mr Putin has previously said that he had not reached a decision but yesterday refused to rule out another term, and drew comparisons between himself and Franklin D Roosevelt, the only American president elected to serve for more than two terms in the White House.

Asked if another term in the Kremlin would damage the Russian political system, he said: "US President Roosevelt was voted in four times in a row because this did not contradict the American constitution."

Nevertheless, he stressed that he and the current President, Dmitry Medvedev, would concentrate on their respective jobs for now and do nothing that would violate the Russian constitution. Mr Putin had said in a recent interview that both men would meet and discuss which of the two might stand for the presidency closer to the time. But yesterday he was more concerned to stress the legality of anything that would be decided.

Mr Putin was prevented from standing in 2008 because the Russian constitution stipulates that a president can serve only two consecutive terms, but he would be free to run in 2012. The four-year term is being extended to six years, so whoever wins in 2012 has the possibility of serving until 2024.

Mr Putin, whose forces went to war with Georgia in 2008, also held out the possibility, if not of a rapprochement, but at least of a solution to the current stand-off with Georgia over two breakaway regions because "Georgia was the dominant power in the region".

But his most colourful remarks were about the leadership of his own country. "How we will act in 2011 or at the start of 2012 we – I and President Medvedev – have said this repeatedly, we will act based on the real situation in the country, on what we have done, on the mood in society," he said. "In Russia no one, including Medvedev, will do anything that would harm the constitution or the rule of law."

Mr Putin was speaking at his annual question-and-answer session with the Valdai Club of international Russian specialists and journalists over dinner at a luxury guesthouse in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The Prime Minister, who is also taking overall responsibility for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, uses every opportunity to promote the city. This was the third year that participants had been flown down to Sochi to meet him.

Asked about Russia's tendency to concentrate power in one individual, Mr Putin said: "That's why I made sure that all power was not concentrated in one individual" – in other words why the post of prime minister and president coexist. "Presidential power is huge, and Medvedev exercises it properly and carefully," he said.

Mr Putin took an enormous variety of questions, about foreign and domestic policy, and the state of Russia and its future prospects. To a question about whether Lenin's embalmed body might be moved from the mausoleum on Red Square in time for the centenary of the 1917 Revolution, Mr Putin flashed back: "There's a statue of Cromwell in London, isn't there? Who do you think was more cruel? Cromwell or Stalin?"

He added to his routine denials of any split or rivalry between himself and Mr Medvedev, repeatedly complimenting Mr Medvedev's performance as President, but he also spoke with obvious warmth about how they had known each other for 20 years and took much the same political approach. He suggested that there was much more room for tension in the British Coalition Government, where the partners came from different parties.

On Georgia, Mr Putin was unusually restrained, never mentioning the exuberant Georgian leader, Mikael Saakashvili, (whom he is known to detest) by name, and stressing that talks should be held between the two enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the Georgian government in Tbilisi. He made no claim that Russia should be a party to such talks. He said he would like the question of the legitimacy of the enclaves as independent states to be considered by the same international authorities who had pronounced – positively – on the independence of Kosovo.

Mr Putin also said that Russia has nothing to fear from China and that worries about millions of Chinese some day occupying vast swathes of Russian territory in the Far East are overblown. China and Russia say their trade and political relations are better than ever, though senior Russian officials are privately concerned about an increasingly assertive China along Moscow's vast and largely empty south-eastern border.

"There is no threat on the side of China. We have been neighbours for hundreds of years. We know how to respect each other," Mr Putin said.

"China does not have to populate the Far East to get what it needs – natural resources. We deliver oil and gas. There are huge coal reserves near the Chinese border. China does not want to aggravate the situation with us."