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Putin Envisions U.S. as a 'Partner'

Diplomacy: The Russian president says he can be flexible on missile defense and stresses solidarity with America in the war on terror.


MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin sketched a vision of a permanent new U.S.-Russia relationship Saturday night that would start with compromises on the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and offensive nuclear weapons and stretch into economic cooperation and joint efforts against terrorism and weapons proliferation.

Speaking through a translator in his Kremlin library until nearly midnight to a dozen correspondents from American news organizations, Putin said he believes that Russia and the United States will never again be enemies and that instead Russia has set a goal of making the United States its "reliable and predictable partner" on a host of issues.

"This is the 'maximum task,' which is of a much greater importance than deriving some transient material advantages," Putin said.

Putin, who is scheduled to leave Monday for his first official visit to the United States, underlined that Russia and the U.S. are on the same side in the war against terrorists. He said the people who attacked New York and the Pentagon were part of the same Afghanistan-based network of terrorists that has members waging war against Russian forces in the separatist republic of Chechnya.

The cooperation that Russia and the United States have shown in the current conflict should be built upon and developed, the Russian leader said, for the benefit and security of both countries.

Putin's trip will take him to the United Nations and later to Crawford, Texas, where he and President Bush are expected to tackle the thorny question of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. Putin has defended the pact as a "cornerstone" of world peace, but Bush has called it an obstacle to U.S. plans to develop a national missile defense.

Without volunteering specifics, Putin said Saturday that he is prepared to show flexibility in response to Bush's wishes to build a missile defense system, and he welcomed signs that Bush will propose significant cuts in the number of U.S. offensive missiles--something Russia has long sought.

"We know the president's view that strategic offensive weapons can and must be reduced. This is a compromise in the right direction," Putin said. "All politics is the art of compromise. We are ready to compromise too. The only question is what we will be offered [and] what compromises we are expected to make."

Various options will be spelled out by the military and diplomatic experts, Putin said, adding: "I am very optimistic."

In recent weeks, Bush and Putin have been speaking in the same uncompromising tone about the need for the world to get tough with terrorists, and Putin repeated that theme in his conversation with the journalists.

"We would like to achieve a positive joint result so that terrorism would be eradicated, expunged and eliminated--not only in Afghanistan but all around the world," he said.

Regarding the recent claim by Osama bin Laden that his Al Qaeda network has acquired nuclear weapons, Putin said the Islamic radical most likely is bluffing.

"Threats of this kind are meant to cause fear and insecurity among people and influence the political leadership of countries fighting terrorism," Putin said. But he warned that it would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility altogether.

"We know of Bin Laden's ties with some radically minded circles in Pakistan, and Pakistan is a nuclear power after all," he said.

Putin said there is no evidence to indicate that any terrorists operating on Russian soil took part in the attacks on the United States, but he said extremists in Chechnya are linked to Bin Laden.

"The fact that we have established and know for sure--100%--is that terrorists fighting in Chechnya have direct relations with international terrorist organizations and individual terrorists operating in Afghanistan, including Al Qaeda," he said.

"They are not simply people who feel sympathy. Rather, they are members of the same terrorist organization; they were trained in the same terrorist camps; they all are pupils of Bin Laden," he said.

Responding to a question about the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Putin suggested that the help that Russia is lending to the United States in the war on terrorism is unprecedented but that how it develops will depend on how the West treats Russia in the future.

"We think that the further development and enhancement of our contribution will depend on the way our relations develop and change with leading Western countries, including the United States, and our relations with NATO," he said.

Citing the threats posed by terrorism and what he described as the even greater danger of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, he said: "It is quite obvious to any objective observer today we could find an effective response to these challenges only if we put our efforts together. We can do that--if we raise the level of mutual confidence, of mutual trust, to a new level, and raise the quality to a new level."

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