President Vladimir Putin says Russia has common peaceful interests with the United States and Europe, but will be forced to target missiles against neighbors if threatened by NATO expansion.  The Russian leader expressed these and other views of Russian foreign and domestic affairs during his annual Kremlin news conference, which lasted four hours and 40 minutes.  VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky reports.

President Putin fielded numerous questions from foreign journalists seeking assurance that Russia will not threaten the economic, energy, or military security of their nations. 

Mr. Putin replied that his country seeks only cooperation and reiterated concern about NATO plans to deploy a missile defense system in Central Europe, and also about Ukraine's possible membership in the alliance, which he says could theoretically lead to missile bases in that country.

"We would probably be forced," says Mr. Putin, "to aim our missiles on those targets, which threaten us.  We are not the ones who create such targets, but we are warning in advance that if you take such a step, we will be forced to respond."

The Russian leader first indicated the possibility of targeting Ukraine on Tuesday, during a Kremlin news conference with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. 

U.S. Secretary of State Rice called the Putin statement "unhelpful and really reprehensible."  The Kremlin views a U.S. plan to deploy a Central European missile defense system against Iran as a destabilizing threat to Russian security.

Asked about his preference for the next U.S. president, Mr. Putin said the choice is up to the American people.  He noted that fundamental interests will inevitably prompt new leaders in Russia and the United States to work together on common problems.

Mr. Putin says without U.S.-Russian cooperation, neither nation will be able to effectively resolve such problems as global terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, poverty, and infectious disease.

Referring to the expected independence of Kosovo, the Kremlin leader said Russia would not, as he put it, ape European recognition the Serbian province by recognizing similar claims of pro-Russian areas of the former Soviet Union such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Trans-Dnistria.   But he noted Kosovo recognition would be taken as a signal, and Russia has a plan of action, which he did not specify. 

Mr. Putin admitted that citizen awareness of the law in Russia is low, and blamed the government for failing to devote adequate attention to legal education, which he said should begin in kindergarten.  He noted that the president himself is obligated to respect the law. 

Mr. Putin said he did not seek to remain as president, because the constitution prohibits three consecutive terms in office.  He added that he is also not addicted to power and will have plenty to do should he become the prime minister of Russia.  His apparent successor, Dmitri Medvedev, has indicated he would nominate Mr. Putin as head of government.

Russia holds a presidential election on March 2 and the new president will take office in May.