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NATO: U.S. Sees Russian Willingness To Improve Ties

After a year of strained relations between NATO and Russia -- due primarily to the Kosovo conflict -- the U.S. says it now sees some hopeful signs. Last month, President Bill Clinton said he believes the U.S. can do business with acting Russian President Vladimir Putin. Last week, Putin said he seeks neither confrontation nor isolation with the West. On Monday, the State Department welcomed Putin's comments. RFE/RL's Senior Correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports from Washington:

Washington, 7 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The United States says there appears to be an increased willingness in Moscow to improve relations with NATO.

State Department spokesman James Foley said Monday the U.S. welcomes acting Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent comments about his willingness to improve ties with NATO.

Foley was referring to Putin's interview with David Frost of the BBC in which Putin said Russia -- while remaining a strong state -- should avoid isolation and seek greater integration into NATO. Putin suggested that Russia eventually could even join NATO as long as it is regarded as an equal partner.

"His answer was one that we find positive, in the sense that it indicates that there is a renewed willingness in Moscow to improve relations with NATO, to begin to work again with the alliance, in the spirit of the agreements that were reached between NATO and Russia a couple years ago."

Foley added:

"We welcome acting President Putin's determination to establish good relations with the West, and we see his statement in that light."

Russia suspended nearly all ties with NATO last year in response to the alliance's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia. NATO, meanwhile, condemned Russia for using excessive force in Chechnya.

But an agreement to restore ties was announced last month when NATO Secretary General George Robertson visited Moscow.

As for Russia possibly becoming a member of NATO, Foley said:

"He (Putin) also made it clear that the question of membership is not on NATO's -- not currently -- on Russia's agenda."

Robertson reiterated the alliance's stand in a statement issued at NATO headquarters in Brussels. He said that building on the alliance's existing links with Moscow is already a "challenging task." He said NATO recognizes the need for a continuing partnership with Russia.

"The United States is certainly prepared to work with Russia and our allies in pursuing closer cooperation. We think that this relationship between NATO and Russia is obviously a cornerstone to security in the wider Europe, and we want to see that develop."

Foley said one essential step is to resume substantive consultations in the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council on a broad range of security issues. He noted that until now, Russia has been limiting discussions to Kosovo issues only. Putin told Robertson that Russia is now ready to return to a broader agenda.

The State Department spokesman said the U.S. sees a number of areas where NATO and Russia could move quickly to demonstrate renewed cooperation on a practical level. He said these include science, air traffic safety, civil emergency preparedness and officer training.

Putin's political rivals have criticized his statement on possible NATO membership, with some politicians calling it a betrayal of Russia's interests. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov called the comments "naive and unforgivable." Others denounced it as a bid for votes from pro-Western Russians in presidential elections scheduled for March 26, or an effort to soften his hard-line image in the West.