President Vladimir Putin called Wednesday for a complete overhaul of the European security system, asserting that the continent will never be free of distrust between East and West as long as NATO continues to exist in its present form without Russia as a member.
Speaking at the first big, no-holds-barred news conference of his 18 months in office, a vigorous and businesslike Russian president boasted a little, joked a little and occasionally lectured journalists.
He also appeared on the edge of losing his temper once during the nearly two-hour meeting _ when challenged about alleged human rights abuses by Russian troops in Chechnya.
He said there ought to be a "single security and defense space in Europe," which he said could be achieved only by disbanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or admitting Russia to it, or creating a new body in which Russia could become an equal partner with the United States and European democracies.
"We do not see NATO as an enemy," Putin said. "We do not see a tragedy in its existence, but we also see no need for it."
Putin spoke two days before he departs to join the Group of Eight industrial nations gathering in Genoa, Italy, where he will meet with President Bush.
The Russian leader said he thinks the good personal relationship developed with Bush at a summit last month in Slovenia will help both nations deal with differences on such issues as nuclear weapons reductions and a proposed U.S. missile defense system.
The news conference was held in the Kremlin hall where the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union used to rubber-stamp Politburo decisions. It was attended by about 500 Russian and foreign journalists.
The decision to meet the media en masse seemed to reflect Putin's increasing confidence as a communicator. The session was open to all accredited journalists and questions were not screened in advance.
Putin's comments about NATO went further than he has gone in the past. He said that while Russia would prefer to see the alliance dissolved now that the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact have disappeared, he realizes that it is not on the West's agenda.
In that case, he said, he urged Russia's eventual inclusion or else the creation of a new defense and security organization to replace it, with Russia as a member.
"If at some point in time we fail to do this, we shall be stuck with differing levels of security in Europe (and) we shall continue to mistrust each other," he warned.
In answer to another question, Putin said that a friendship treaty Russia signed Monday with China did not mean the two nations plan to coordinate responses to Bush's plans for a missile defense system.
"Russia isn't planning any joint action in this sphere with China or any other nation," Putin said. "Russia has enough means of its own to respond to any change in the field of strategic stability."
Later, Putin hinted that he will come to his discussions with Bush with a counterproposal to the defense system, which Russians fear will gut the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and trigger a new arms race.
Asked what he had seen when he looked into Bush's soul at Slovenia, Putin said he found Bush "fairly good-hearted pleasant to deal with. Perhaps I shouldn't be saying this, but he struck me as a touch sentimental."
Putin was most impassioned when he talked about Chechnya, the breakaway republic where Russian forces have been bogged down in a war with separatists for nearly two years. Soldiers and pro-Russian sympathizers are being killed at a rate of 10 to 20 a week.
Unable to locate concentrations of rebels to fight, troops have been rounding up civilians looking for suspected guerrillas. Soldiers recently were accused of human rights violations in the arrests of hundreds of men in three villages.
Putin was asked by U.S.-funded Radio Liberty whether all the reports of alleged abuses meant his Chechnya policies needed to be revised. Instead of discussing abuses, Putin, visibly irritated, insisted that the military had put an end to lawlessness in the breakaway republic.
"Say "thank you' to us for that at least," he said.
"Did you know that the (rebel) fighters have killed 40 district heads and imams _ old people? Why don't you ask me about that? Why don't you ask me how we are fighting those criminals?" he asked.
Putin said the "radicalization of the Muslim world" had penetrated into the region, where some were seeking to create a "united states of Islam" on Russia's southern fringe. He said the extremists had tricked Chechens into rebelling against Russia.
On domestic policy, Putin voiced respect for the Soviet legacy but said he was intent on ridding Russia of some of the worst Soviet excesses, including "super-centralization" and excessive military budgets.
Putin also said he opposed the removal of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin's body from its mausoleum in Red Square for burial. Communists and their supporters vehemently object to the possibility, while their opponents say leaving Lenin in a place of honor undercuts Russia's young democracy.
"Many people connect their own lives with the name of Lenin," Putin said. "Burying Lenin would mean that they had lived in vain.
"I'm trying not to do anything to disturb civil peace and the consolidation of society," he said.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.