Russia's leaders seized on the arrest of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to accuse the West of hypocrisy when it comes to freedom of speech.

"If it is full democracy, then why have they hidden Mr Assange in prison? That's what, democracy?" asked the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. "As they say in the countryside, some people's cows can moo, but yours should keep quiet."

Mr Putin has frequently had to field difficult questions about the alarming frequency with which journalists are pressured and even killed in Russia, and took evident pleasure in the shoe being on the other foot. "I would like to shoot the puck back at our American colleagues," he added.

On Wednesday, a source in the administration of President Dmitry Medvedev made the mischievous suggestion to a Russian news agency that Mr Assange should be nominated for a Nobel prize. "Public and non-governmental organisations should think of how to help him," added the source.

Many of the leaked US diplomatic ommuniquEs paint Russia and its leaders in a bad light, describing it as a "mafia state" with endemic corruption, allegations which the Kremlin has brushed off as not based in fact.

The current tone of Moscow officials, who have portrayed Mr Assange as a crusader for the truth, is rather different from that a couple of months ago, when the WikiLeaks founder suggested he might have documents that compromised the Russian leadership.