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Putin offers Americans thoughts on NATO, bin Laden
By Ron Popeski

WACO, Texas, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin told U.S. radio listeners on Thursday that there was nothing Russia could do if more ex-communist countries wanted to join NATO and that he had various blunt ways of describing Osama bin Laden -- but that standards of decency prevented him from uttering them in public.

In a freewheeling 45-minute interview and phone-in on National Public Radio, Putin also offered some insight into his literary preferences and his passion for judo.

Putin told a listener from Seattle that he could neither support nor oppose NATO membership for the three former Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

"If we change the format of the relationship between Russia and NATO, then I think NATO enlargement will cease to be a relevant issue," Putin said in the broadcast, conducted in New York and heard throughout the country at the end of his three-day visit to the United States.

"I am not opposed to it, I just don't think it makes any sense if we are to deal with the issue of increasing national security. We, of course, are not in a position to tell people what to do. We cannot forbid people from making certain choices if they want to increase the security of their nations in a certain way."

After holding talks with President George W. Bush at his Texas ranch, Putin flew to New York to view the ruins of the World Trade Center, destroyed in the Sept. 11 hijacked airliner attacks, and to express fresh solidarity with the United States in its campaign against terrorism.

Putin in October indicated for the first time that Russia would not oppose further enlargement of NATO if Moscow were involved in the process, and during his U.S. stay he stressed that NATO stood to gain from including Moscow in its decision-making and by treating it as an ally against threats to world security.


He issued his new broadside against bin Laden in response to a question from Virginia over how he felt in the 1980s, when he worked for the KGB, about then-President Ronald Reagan's denunciation of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire."

"I think he was being a little extreme and that such an attitude was unlikely to accomplish an objective even if his objectives were noble," he said "It was a motto, a slogan of the day rather than a policy pursued by Reagan."

But Bush's description of bin Laden as "the evil one," he said, was "very mild as a choice of words. I have other ways of putting it but am restrained by the fact that I am talking to the media and this is hardly appropriate. These terrorists do not treat the rest of humanity as human beings. We are not even enemies as far as they are concerned, just dust."

Putin made only brief references to the failure during his visit to come to an agreement on U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield and withdraw from parts of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Bush continued to dismiss the pact as outdated, while Putin said Moscow was still in favor of retaining it.

The Kremlin leader raised no objections to a Texan listener's suggestion that the United States and Russia might join forces in creating such a shield.

"The most important thing is to work on a system that rather than generating mutual distrust...engages us in building a system toward the opposite end," he said. "I believe such a scenario is feasible and that's what I feel my partner and colleague President Bush is prepared to do."

Putin's interview, similar to phone-ins conducted by a Moscow radio station with former President Bill Clinton and other world leaders, also delved into Putin's life outside the Kremlin.

He told listeners he had started taking part in a Russian form of wrestling at 14 and later graduated to judo, which he still practiced regularly, and repeated his feeling that the sport amounted to a "philosophy." He also listed his favorite classic authors as Russians -- Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gogol.

He discounted any possibility of foreign mediation to settle Russia's conflict with separatists in Chechnya, saying Russia's own territory was at issue. Political means would be used to find a solution, he said, without elaborating and "terrorists" and foreign mercenaries would be "brought to justice or destroyed."

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