Putin Assails NATO Over Expansion Plan But Rules Out New Cold War

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Russian President Vladimir Putin strongly criticized NATO's eastward expansion plans Friday but ruled out chances of a new Cold War, insisting that Moscow wants to be friends with the Western military alliance.

Putin, attending a meeting with NATO leaders on the sidelines of a summit in the Romanian capital, urged them to listen to Russia's concerns — especially over NATO's plans to admit ex-Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia.

"Let's be friends, guys, and engage in an honest dialogue," Putin said.

Putin, who had been harshly critical of NATO in the past, sought to emphasize positive elements in Russia's NATO ties, such as Russia's agreement to facilitate transit of supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan across Russian territory. He shrugged off concerns that the world is sliding toward a new East-West divide.

"None of the global players — Europe, the United States or Russia — is interested in returning to the past," Putin said. "And we have no ideological differences."

But he also warned the alliance cannot enhance security on the continent without Russia.

"The emergence of the powerful military bloc at our borders will be seen as a direct threat to Russia's security," Putin said. "I heard them saying today that the expansion is not directed against Russia. But it's the potential, not intentions that matters."

"The efficiency of our cooperation will depend on whether NATO members take Russia's interests into account," he added. "We want to be heard, and we want see problems that divide us solved."

NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer characterized Friday's talks with Putin as "frank and open," although he conceded there were no major breakthroughs.

"It would be wrong to describe it as a clash of views," de Hoop Scheffer said.

But he conceded: "It is true that NATO enlargement is a contentious issue. The minds do not exactly meet, to put it mildly."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel described Russia as a "partner," and said that meetings like Friday's "can help avoid misunderstandings and reservations."

"NATO is not directed against anybody, certainly not against Russia," she said.

Putin's meeting with NATO leaders came a day after the alliance failed to grant membership plans to ex-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine. Despite strong U.S. backing to bring them in, Germany, France and some other alliance members opposed the move, fearing it would provoke Moscow.

De Hoop Scheffer reassured Ukraine and Georgia on Friday that there was "not a sliver of a doubt" the two countries would join the alliance before long.

He also told reporters the Western military alliance will help Ukraine in any way it can to make reforms.

"These countries will become members of NATO — there can be no misunderstanding about that," de Hoop Scheffer said.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said his country understands the challenges that delayed its bid and remains devoted to democratic and European values. He said he was confident that Ukraine would get a formal "membership action plan" at a December meeting of NATO foreign ministers.

But Putin reaffirmed his strong opposition to NATO's eastward expansion.

He also criticized NATO nations for failing to ratify an amended version of the Cold War-era Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which limits the deployment of aircraft, tanks and other heavy weapons on the continent. Russia last fall suspended its participation in the treaty, saying its old version became meaningless when nations in the former Soviet orbit joined NATO.

Putin said Russia wants to preserve the treaty, but that the West must ratify the new version signed in 1999. He dismissed NATO's claim that Russia needs to withdraw its troops from Georgia and Moldova, saying there is no link between the issues.

Putin, however, avoided the harsh language he used at a security conference in Munich, Germany, last year.

"I don't know where this horror in expectation of my speeches came from," he said, hailing a "sincere and constructive" dialogue at the meeting.

Putin also praised Washington for trying to assuage Russia's concerns about its U.S. missile defense plans, an apparent attempt to set a positive tone ahead of his talks with President Bush over the weekend.

Bush and Putin will meet at the Russian leader's Black Sea retreat in Sochi for talks expected to focus on missile defense.

"It's positive that they have heard our concerns," Putin said, adding that the latest U.S. proposals on missile defense has shown that "our U.S. partners are thinking about ensuring transparency and mutual trust."

Putin has described the U.S. missile shield as a threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent and has shrugged off U.S. pledges that it is intended to counter a missile threat from Iran.