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.