Putin: Russia could be a NATO member

MOSCOW - Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an unexpected gesture to the West, suggested in a television interview yesterday that Russia would consider joining NATO if the Western alliance agreed to treat Russia as an equal partner.

"Why not? Why not?" Putin said when asked by the BBC's David Frost about Russian membership. "I do not rule out such a possibility . . . in the case that Russia's interests will be reckoned with, if it will be an equal partner."

"Russia is a part of European culture, and I do not consider my own country in isolation from Europe and from . . . what we often talk about as the civilized world," Putin said. "Therefore, it is with difficulty that I imagine NATO as an enemy."

Russia and NATO have had a strained relationship since Russia acquiesced to NATO's expansion into Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic last spring.

When NATO attacked Yugoslavia last spring, the Russian military and political leadership reacted with anger and bitterness, freezing the relationship. When the fighting ended, Russia further aggravated NATO by sending its soldiers into Kosovo ahead of NATO peacekeepers.

While tensions have eased, Russian officials expressed irritation that a recent NATO meeting was held in Ukraine, and Russian officials steadfastly have opposed NATO inclusion of any former Soviet republics, some of which have expressed interest in joining.

Putin's remark, made three weeks before Russia's presidential election, comes as Russia is facing criticism at home and abroad for alleged human-rights abuses against civilians in the war in Chechnya.

The remark also follows positive gestures from the West, including a recent declaration by President Clinton that Putin is someone "we can do business with."

Putin's statement on NATO drew immediate reaction at home. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, a presidential candidate, said it is "naive and unpardonable for a politician of his level" to make such a statement. Putin, he said, "lacks understanding of foreign-policy issues."