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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush Will Assure Putin Over NATO

APPedestrians in Prague on Tuesday passing a large mural adorning the conference center where the NATO summit will be held.
WASHINGTON -- U.S. President George W. Bush said he'll assure President Vladimir Putin this week that Russia "has nothing to fear" from NATO expansion into territory once claimed by the Soviet Union.

Bush also said the alliance will play an increasing role in tracking down international terrorists.

"Russia is not a threat, and therefore the military strategies of NATO need to be changed to recognize that new reality," Bush said Monday, previewing his trip in a round-table interview with eastern European reporters.

On Iraq, Bush promised to consult with allies over possible strikes, even though the United States is not directly seeking NATO's help in confronting Saddam Hussein.

"The NATO alliance understands this issue," Bush said. "One way or the other, he is going to be disarmed."

The president left early Tuesday for Prague for a summit of leaders of the 19 NATO nations. He will also visit Russia and prospective NATO members Lithuania and Romania on the five-day trip.

Bush offered support to Putin for his handling of last month's hostage crisis in a Moscow theater.

"He made some very tough decisions. People try to blame Vladimir, they ought to blame the terrorists," Bush said. "They're the ones who caused this situation -- not President Putin."

The president noted that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in his recent audiotaped message was "praising these Muslim attacks," including the one in Moscow, and mentioned Chechnya.

"To the extent that there are al-Qaida members infiltrating Russia, they need to be dealt with, they need to be brought to justice," Bush said.

At the two-day Prague meeting starting Thursday, the Cold War-vintage North Atlantic Treaty Organization is bringing into its fold three Baltic nations -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- once claimed by Moscow as republics of the Soviet Union. Three other soon-to-be NATO members, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia -- were tied to the Soviet Union through the Warsaw Pact, the Kremlin-dominated alliance signed in 1955 to counter the U.S.-led NATO formed six years earlier. The other prospective new member, Slovenia, was formerly part of non-aligned Yugoslavia.

Former Warsaw Pact members Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999.

"The Warsaw Pact doesn't exist," Bush said Monday. "As a matter of fact, the Warsaw Pact is becoming NATO, slowly but surely," he said in a Radio Free Europe interview.

After the Prague meeting, Bush flies to St. Petersburg -- his second visit in a year. "I'm going to Russia to make it clear to Russia and to Vladimir Putin they have nothing to fear from NATO expansion ... to explain why I think it's a positive development," Bush said.

"There is a threat to all of us in the form of international and global terrorism, which we must be able to deal with," Bush said.

Of the battle between Russian troops and independence-minded rebels in Chechnya, Bush said, "I hope Chechnya can be solved peacefully.

"I will continue to talk to Vladimir about the need to protect and recognize the rights of minorities in any country, and at the same time deal with terrorism. I hope he can find that balance. I think he can," Bush said.

He praised Russia for helping to draft the strong resolution on weapons inspections in Iraq that was ultimately adopted by the UN Security Council. UN weapons inspectors returned to Iraq on Monday.

"This isn't a free pass" for Hussein, he said. "We expect him to disarm."

Bush will hold separate one-on-one meetings on the sidelines of the NATO summit with Czech, Turkish and French leaders and with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson -- but not with German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der, who angered Bush by opposing U.S. plans toward Iraq during his re-election bid. Administration officials sought Monday to play down the dispute.

"He'll certainly see Chancellor Schr?der during the course of the meetings," said Secretary of State Colin Powell during a session with local high school editors. "They'll be in meetings together for two days. They will have an opportunity to exchange greetings."

Thousands of militant protesters have said they will converge on Prague during the two-day meeting. "I am mindful of what happens when a U.S. president shows up at times," Bush said. "There is going to be a lot of noise and clamor."

In the interview with Radio Free Europe, Bush said he recognized that the new members of NATO are small and have little military might to offer the alliance. "They can contribute their love for freedom. ... It will add some vigor" to NATO he said.

Asked if he ever envisioned Russia as a full-fledged NATO member, Bush said, "Time will tell. The key thing is to make sure the relationship works the way it should, which really says to Russia that an expanded NATO on your border is not a threat to you or your future."