Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin blamed George W. Bush for a dispute with Ukraine that left much of Europe without gas this month, saying the former U.S. president fostered political chaos in the region. Putin said he was “cautiously optimistic” about future relations with Barack Obama, Bloomberg reported.

The Bush administration supported NATO membership applications from Ukraine and Georgia, which Russia opposes, and planned to site a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The U.S. under Bush also signed a “strategic partnership” with Ukraine.

“What happened in recent years in Ukraine is the result, to a significant extent, of the activities of the previous U.S. administration and the European Union, which supported it,” Putin, 56, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television yesterday. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that relations with the U.S. will improve with Obama in the White House.

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Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko have feuded since they were swept to power four years ago in the so-called Orange Revolution, sparked by the victory of a pro-Russian candidate in a rigged presidential election. Bush said at the time the revolution was a “powerful example” of the movement toward freedom “for people all around the world.”

Russia, which supplies about a fifth of Europe’s gas through Ukrainian pipelines, and the EU “have become hostages of this domestic political situation,” Putin said near Velikiy Novgorod, the ninth-century trading hub between Moscow and St. Petersburg. “It was that domestic political situation in Ukraine that left no chance for us to reach final agreements on the gas issue.”

‘Certain Signals’

While U.S.-Russia ties reached a post-Cold War nadir in Bush’s last months, Putin said there are “certain signals” that Obama is reassessing policies that Russia opposes, including the missile defense system and fast-track membership for Ukraine and Georgia in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Bush won approval to site the planned missile shield in eastern Europe after Russia’s five-day war with Georgia in August, saying it was intended to protect against attacks from Iran or North Korea. President Dmitry Medvedev, who succeeded Putin in May, said in November he would place short-range missiles and radio- jamming facilities near Poland to “neutralize” the system.

Obama has said he has “no commitment” to the shield and wants more analysis on whether it will actually work before deciding to proceed or abandon the project.

“In Mr. Obama’s inner circle, they’re saying there is no need to rush with it and it needs to be further analyzed, and we welcome such statements,” Putin said.

International Security

Russia is also hearing “positive signals on NATO expansion,” Putin said. “They are saying that it is possible to provide security for Ukraine and Georgia in various ways and it is not essential to accept them into NATO now,” he said. “We welcome that and are ready to take part in any discussion on working out the best options to ensure international security.”

Western European countries led by Germany on Dec. 2 maintained a veto on membership roadmaps for both countries, defying Bush’s attempts to accelerate NATO entry.

Two weeks later, the Bush administration signed a “charter on strategic partnership” with Ukraine that pledged “to strengthen Ukraine’s candidacy for NATO membership” and concluded a similar agreement with Georgia on Jan. 9.

In the accord, which was signed as Ukraine was negotiating gas prices and transit fees with Russia, the U.S. also vowed “to work closely together on rehabilitating and modernizing the capacity of Ukraine’s gas transit infrastructure.”

‘Dancing’ to U.S. Tune

Talks between Ukraine and OAO Gazprom, Russia’s gas exporter, broke down at the end of December, prompting Russia to halt fuel supplies to and then through Ukraine, affecting supplies in more than 20 countries for almost two weeks. Gazprom said the U.S.- Ukraine accord on pipelines was “suspicious” and suggested Ukraine was “dancing to music” being played by the U.S.

Putin and Tymoshenko, with EU mediation, signed a deal on Jan. 19 to resume gas flows. The 10-year contracts oblige Ukraine to pay more for Russian gas and for Gazprom to pay more to Ukraine in transit fees. Yushchenko, though, is unhappy with the deal and wants new talks “no later than in the summer,” said Oleksandr Shlapak, first deputy chief of Yushchenko’s staff, on Jan. 23.

“A new attempt to review these agreements at the presidential level is the best confirmation” that the political instability in Ukraine is a threat to Europe’s energy security, Putin said yesterday.