Russian President Vladimir Putin says his country would reconsider its opposition to NATO's plans to extend membership to former Communist nations if the Atlantic alliance becomes more of a political and less of a military organization. Mr. Putin says he believes the European Union and NATO should cooperate more closely with Russia in the war on terrorism.
Russia has long been opposed to NATO's plans to expand the alliance eastward. What especially bothers Moscow is NATO's possible inclusion of the three Baltic countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. But Mr. Putin appeared to soften his opposition Wednesday to any NATO enlargement as long as Russia is given a say in how it is carried out.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and top EU officials, Mr. Putin says he is watching closely to see if NATO becomes more of a political entity instead of a strictly military alliance. "As for the NATO expansion, one can take another, an entirely new look at this, if one is to realize ideas presented quite a few times in Europe to the effect that NATO is transforming, NATO takes on a different shade and is becoming a political organization," Mr. Putin said. "Of course, we would reconsider our position with regard to such expansion if we are to feel involved in such processes."
The Russian leader is in Brussels trying to convince EU and NATO leaders that a joint mechanism be set up under which Russia and the two major Western groups could cooperate in the fight against terrorism.
Russia and the European Union agreed Wednesday to start monthly security talks. Moscow and the 15-nation bloc also agreed to exchange intelligence on suspected terrorists, block financing of terrorist groups, and track the movement of chemical, biological and nuclear material.
Mr. Putin is meeting NATO Secretary-General George Robertson later Wednesday and says he plans to discuss his ideas for further cooperation in the war against terrorism. One Russian idea is to establish a permanent body to address European security problems, including terrorism.
Mindful of E.U. concerns about Russia's military action in its breakaway republic of Chechnya, Mr. Putin says his government is willing to talk to Chechen rebels as long as they cut their ties to what he calls international terrorists.
"We are prepared for a dialogue with those who are honestly mistaken. But the only requirement is those who have their arms to curtail all their ties with the international terrorist organization[s], from which they still receive the weapons, the finances and new terrorists trained at training camps," said the Russian president.
Mr. Putin, who has steadfastly linked Chechen guerrillas to international terrorists, says the bombings of Russian apartment buildings in 1999 bear what he calls "the same signature" as the airplane attacks on New York and Washington.