Putin Says Russia Was Ready to Alter ABM

Hours after the United States announced its withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, President Vladimir Putin told correspondents from the Financial Times that he had been prepared to modify the treaty.

"We asked to be given the specific parameters that stood in the way of U.S. desires to develop defensive systems," Putin said in the Kremlin interview Thursday, published in Monday's issue. "We were fully prepared to discuss those parameters. But nothing specific was given to us, no specific parameters to be negotiated. We heard only insistent requests for bilateral withdrawal from the treaty. To this day I fail to understand this insistence, given our position, which was fairly flexible."

But Putin says he still has confidence in U.S. President George W. Bush.

"In the course of our contacts with President Bush, on no occasion did he deceive me or mislead me," he said. "He always does what he says, and in that respect he is a reliable partner. … Of course we have differences of opinion on some issues. … If we treat each other as partners, solutions can be found."

He then reiterated his desire to have the agreement he and Bush struck on the reduction of strategic offensive arms cemented in a legal treaty. Bush favors an informal agreement.

But the most important factor in avoiding confrontation, Putin suggested repeatedly, is not the ABM or arms reduction treaties: It's a closer relationship between Russia and NATO.

He brought up the subject no less than three times, stressing twice his support for a proposal that would allow Russia to have an equal say, even a veto, in certain security issues decided by the North Atlantic Council. It was put forward by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with whom Putin is scheduled to meet later this week in Britain.

"If we intend to change the nature of our relationship between Russia and the West, Russia and the U.S., and if we take the road suggested by British Prime Minister Tony Blair concerning changing the relationship between Russia and NATO, then this overall question of confrontation will lose its relevance," Putin said.

The United States backtracked on previous support for a substantially stronger relationship between Russia and NATO when it slammed the brakes on Blair's proposal at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers earlier this month.

Instead, the ministers agreed to aim for a NATO-Russia council that could identify opportunities for consultation, cooperation, joint decisions and joint action by their next meeting in Iceland in May.