- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

PUSHKIN, Russia Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday called NATO's expansion an unwarranted "problem," even as President Bush insisted it should be welcomed by the Russian people.
The two leaders locked horns for 90 minutes here at the worn, snow-shrouded Catherine Palace one day after NATO stretched to Russia's border by adding seven former Soviet satellites to the alliance.
Mr. Putin later publicly expressed support for the United States' quest to disarm Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, but pointed out that Osama bin Laden is still at large. And Mr. Putin was sharply critical of two U.S. allies, accusing Saudi Arabia of financing terrorism and chiding Pakistan for its weapons of mass destruction.
"We don't agree 100 percent of the time," Mr. Bush said during a brief joint news conference with his Russian counterpart. "But we always agree to discuss things in a frank way."
Mr. Putin called the unscripted meeting "very, very frank," a common diplomatic euphemism for contentious.
"We discussed practically everything between the sky and the Earth," Mr. Putin said. "The problem of NATO expansion. And the development of relations between Russia and NATO."
Mindful of Russia's unease about the expansionfl which included the Baltics, once part of the Soviet Unionfl Mr. Bush jumped at the chance to smooth Moscow's ruffled feathers after the historic NATO summit that concluded yesterday.
Mr. Putin invited Mr. Bush to Russia during a phone call several weeks ago, when Mr. Bush was soliciting his support for a U.N. resolution on Iraq.
"As regards [to] the expansion, you know our position well," Mr. Putin said yesterday. "We do not believe that this has been necessitated by the existing facts."
Mr. Putin complained that the alliance, which added three nations in 1999, keeps transforming.
"We do not rule out the possibility of deepening our relations with the alliance," he said, adding, "if the activities of the alliance are in accord with Russia's national-security interests."
Mr. Bush tried to put the best possible face on the expansion to reassure Russia, the United States' former foe.
"I have just come from NATO," he said. "The mood of the NATO countries is this: Russia is our friend.
"We've got a lot of interests together," Mr. Bush pointed out. "The expansion of NATO should be welcomed by the Russian people."
He added: "The strategy of NATO is going to be based upon the fact that the Cold War is over. Russia is a friend; Russia is not an enemy."
NATO officially decided Thursday to expand the military alliance to 26 members. The seven countries invited to join Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia were once part of the communist bloc dominated by Moscow that NATO was designed to counter.
Mr. Putin declined an invitation to attend the summit in Prague. But Mr. Bush, who left the summit yesterday morning, relayed good wishes from fellow NATO members.
"As I was leaving the NATO summit, a lot of leaders came up and asked me to send their personal regards to him," Mr. Bush said of Mr. Putin. "And in terms of our bilateral relations, we'll continue to work to make them as strong as they can possibly be."
One area where the two leaders found common ground was Iraq. They issued a joint statement pledging "our full support" for implementation of U.N. resolutions demanding the disarming of Saddam.
The statement called on Iraq "to cooperate fully and unconditionally in its disarmament obligations or face serious consequences."
Mr. Bush publicly thanked Mr. Putin for working to pass the latest U.N. resolution on Iraq. But instead of returning the compliment, Mr. Putin hinted that the United States should not go beyond the confines of the United Nations.
"We have to stay within the framework of the work being carried out by the Security Council of the United Nations," he said.
The two leaders also talked about the importance of rooting out terrorism in Chechnya, where separatists have been waging war against Russian forces.
Mr. Putin went on to grouse about U.S. allies in the war on terrorism.
"We should not forget about those who finance terrorism," Mr. Putin said. "Of the 19 terrorists who committed attacks on September 11 against the United States, 16 are citizens of Saudi Arabia. We should not forget about that."
Fifteen of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Putin also noted the United States' failure to apprehend bin Laden, echoing a criticism leveled recently by outgoing Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. Along the way, Mr. Putin took a swipe at Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally.
"Now, where has Osama bin Laden taken refuge?" Mr. Putin asked. "They say somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We know what Mr. Musharraf is doing to achieve stability in his country, and we are supporting him," Mr. Putin said. "But what can happen with armaments, arms, weapons that exist in Pakistan, including weapons of mass destruction?
"We are not sure on that aspect," he added. "And we should not forget about that."
Mr. Bush used yesterday's news conference as an opportunity to laud the arrest of Abd al-Rashin al-Nashiri, suspected of being a top al Qaeda official.
"We did bring to justice a killer," the president said. "And the message is, we're making progress on the war against terrorists, that we're going to hunt them down one at a time, that it doesn't matter where they hide.
"As we work with our friends, we will find them and bring them to justice," he added. "And America and Russia and people who love freedom are one person safer as a result of us finding this guy."
Despite his disagreements with Mr. Putin, Mr. Bush seemed pleased to be in the presence of his Russian friend. He smiled often and stood close to Mr. Putin in this city 20 miles south of St. Petersburg, Mr. Putin's hometown.
"I'm very pleased to see the mood the president of the United States is in," Mr. Putin said. "It is what we need, actually."


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