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Putin 'Very Optimistic' On Arms Deal

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Saturday that he was "very optimistic" that a compromise could be found with the United States on missile defense and that he looked forward to hearing President Bush's specific proposals at their summit next week.

"We believe it's right to consider offensive and defensive weapons together," Putin told a group of American journalists gathered for an evening interview in the Kremlin. "We know the president's view that strategic offensive weapons can and must be reduced. This is a compromise in the right direction."

Russia has proposed new limits on U.S. and Russian stockpiles of no more than 2,000 long-range warheads for each country, down from a current total of about 6,000 each. The Bush administration was said to be considering 1,750 to 2,250 warheads apiece.

Putin said that Russia was ready to discuss a compromise on U.S. missile defense plans but must know specifically what in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty stands in the way of Washington's proposed missile shield.

"We are also ready for a compromise. We should see what specific compromise proposals our American partners have," Putin said at the beginning of the interview. Putin said that it would be up to experts to set specific parameters for both offensive and defensive weapons.

Mr. Bush and Putin are to meet next week in Washington and at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas during the Russian leader's first visit to the United States.

"When we see specific options it will be up to the political leaders to make a choice between different options, and I am very optimistic they can be found," Putin said.

The interview, the second that Putin has given to a group of American journalists in the Kremlin in the last six months, looked set to be wide-ranging.

Asked about bin Laden's claim that he has nuclear and chemical weapons, Putin said that the threat could be a bluff but nevertheless should be taken seriously.

"I wouldn't overestimate the danger but it would also be wrong to downplay it," Putin said. "We know about bin Laden's links with radical circles in Pakistan, and Pakistan is a nuclear power."

"In that respect, we must support Gen. Musharraf in his efforts to consolidate his country," Putin said. He flatly denied that any Russian or former Soviet weapons of mass destruction could get into the hands of terrorists.

"It's unlikely that the terrorists in Afghanistan have weapons of mass destruction, but we can't neglect a chance that they may have them," he added. "In any case, they can't be of Soviet or Russian origin, I'm absolutely sure of that."

Putin said he wasn't looking for any particular payback from the United States in exchange for Russia's support of the U.S.-led action against terror. "In the first place, we would like our joint struggle against terrorism to lead to positive results, that terrorism not only in Afghanistan but the entire world be destroyed, uprooted, liquidated," he said.

Russia wuld also "like to have a new quality in our relations and have in the United States a reliable and predictable partner," he added. "This top task is more important that getting any momentary material advantages."

Speaking about Russian assistance to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Putin said that along with air corridors and "very valuable intelligence information," Russia also had supplied "tens of millions dollars worth of military-technical assistance" to Afghan opposition forces fighting the Taliban.

"The situation in Afghanistan has been developing as we expected," he said. "The northern alliance has launched the operations it was planning and is now effectively taking the entire northern part of Afghanistan under control."

Putin also claimed that Russia was providing assistance to the U.S.-led action against terror by fighting radical Arab mercenaries in Chechnya, who would otherwise go to fight against Americans.

On the eve of his first trip to the United States, Putin expressed confidence that U.S.-Russian relations had taken an irreversible turn for the better.

He said that Cold War rivalries and the fears they generated were partly to blame for allowing the growth of extremism, including in Afghanistan, where international terrorist training bases were established. The United States "did nothing to prevent the creation of the Taliban," and the Soviet Union responded by supporting U.S. foes.

"I think we should end this vicious circle, and I feel that together with President Bush, we are in a position to do that," Putin said, indicating that Russia would accept a U.S. role in Central Asia, a region it considers its own sphere of influence.

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