WASHINGTON—Senator John Kerry slammed Mitt Romney as naive and wrong for asserting that Russia is the nation’s top enemy, saying that the United States has much bigger problems in the Middle East.

Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also criticized the former Massachusetts governor and presumed GOP presidential nominee for being “inappropriately threatening” when the two countries should be seeking cooperation on a host of issues.

Earlier this week, former Secretary of State Colin Powell cautioned Romney about describing Russia as a “foe.”

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“Foe means enemy,” Powell told CNN. “Will we have differences of opinion with the Russians? Yes. Will they get mad at us from time to time, and we get mad at them? That’s part of the normal diplomatic relations.”

Kerry, who would be on the short list of possible successors to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a second Obama term, is positioning himself as a forceful surrogate for the president on matters of foreign policy—a potential weakness for the Romney campaign.

Kerry said he recently met with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and learned how similar the US and Russian positions are on Syria, which has been beset by more than a year of civil unrest.

“I think that candidate Romney has been breathtakingly off target,” Kerry said in an interview on Bloomberg TV’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt.”

“They believe Assad has to go,” Kerry said. “They have a difference of opinion as to how we might achieve that and I think there are ways for us to actually be much more cooperative with Russia on a number of issues. So I think it is an enormous mistake to push Russia away and to make it the enemy that it is not today.”

The United States has proposed sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but Moscow and Beijing have resisted. The United Nations has deployed military observers throughout Syria.

Certainly, the level of US-Russia cooperation could be better, Kerry said.

“But we have much bigger problems on this planet in the Middle East, with the evolution of Egypt, with the challenge of Syria, terrorism, Al Qaeda in Yemen, and so forth in the Arabian Peninsula.”

During an interview with CNN in March, Romney called Russia “without question our number one geopolitical foe” in the wake of President Obama’s “hot mic” comment in Seoul to Russian President Dimitri Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” after the presidential election.

In an opinion piece that appeared Sunday in the Chicago Tribune, Romney clearly viewed Moscow as a threat, calling “a revanchist Russia” a peril to the NATO alliance.

“At the same time that President Obama has been weakening our military, he has sent the message — intentionally or not — that the worth of NATO has diminished in America’s eyes,” Romney wrote.

“At this moment of both opportunities and perils — an Iranian regime with nuclear ambitions, an unpredictable North Korea, a revanchist Russia, a China spending furiously on its own military, to name but a few of the major challenges looming before us — the NATO alliance must retain the capacity to act.”

During the Bloomberg interview, Kerry also took shots at Romney’s economic policies, saying that as governor he took the Bay State “backwards in employment, backwards in income.”

“I believe that as the race goes on, there’s going to be an extraordinarily clear choice,” he said.

Romney’s agenda for more tax cuts—which Kerry likened to “Bush on steroids”—would further hurt the economy and make it more difficult to balance the federal budget, he said.

“So Romney wants to reduce even more the available revenue to deal with a crisis for our country economically. I can’t think of anything more irresponsible than that.”