MOSCOW Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that his country should be allowed to join NATO or the alliance should be disbanded and replaced by a new body that includes all of Europe and Russia.
In his first major Kremlin news conference, Putin also said Russia has no plans for a joint response with China to counter U.S. moves to build a missile defense system. The prospect of a coordinated stance was raised by Putin's meetings this week with the Chinese president.
The Russian president who in two days attends the G-8 summit in Italy gathering the leaders of the world's top economic nations said the U.S.-led NATO alliance has outlived its usefulness, having been created during the Cold War to oppose the Soviet bloc.
"There is no more Warsaw Pact, no more Soviet Union, but NATO continues to exist and develop," he said.
"We do not see it as an enemy," he said. "We do not see a tragedy in its existence, but we also see no need for it."
NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe creates "different levels of security on the continent ... which does not correspond to today's realities and is not caused by any political or military necessity."
He called instead for the creation of a "single security and defense space in Europe," which he said could be achieved either by disbanding NATO, or by Russia joining it, or by the creation of a new body in which Russia could become an equal partner.
NATO spokesman Robert Pszczel said the current partnership between Russia and the alliance had reached a "level of maturity" that benefits both sides, even if there are disagreements.
"We have no doubt that the relationship, the partnership ... has a good, solid future based on mutual interest," he said in Brussels, Belgium.
The NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, created in 1997, holds regular sessions to give Russia a forum to raise issues, and the two sides are cooperating in several regions, including the Balkans.
The Kremlin gathering Wednesday was the first time Putin has allowed such a large, open press conference in Moscow, with some 500 journalists, no pre-screened questions and opportunities for follow-ups a sign of the leader's growing confidence after 19 months in power. Putin used the opportunity to lay out a range of foreign and domestic policies.
But despite the tone which could seem anti-American at times, Putin was full of praise for his U.S. counterpart, President Bush.
"I do not share the opinion of those who say he lacks experience," Putin said, describing Bush as a warm person, pleasant to talk to and even "a little bit sentimental."
His comments on China came days after Putin signed a comprehensive friendship treaty with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, which had raised prospects for a joint stance against U.S. plans to develop a missile shield and scrap the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.
Both countries staunchly oppose the U.S. plans and warn it could spark a new arms race.
But Putin appeared to rule out coordinating with China. "We have enough means to respond to any changes ourselves," he said.
Putin spoke as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met in Italy with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, in talks dominated by the American missile defense plans.
Powell later described the two-hour meeting as "very, very friendly" and Ivanov said Russia was still open to "a constructive dialogue" despite the wedge missile defense has driven in relations.
"The success of this dialogue will, by and large, determine the strategic stability of the entire world," Ivanov said.
In a joint statement after their talks earlier this week, Jiang and Putin said the 1972 ABM treaty was a "cornerstone of strategic stability" that must be preserved.
But they did not comment on the United States' successful test of a missile interceptor on Sunday suggesting suggests two countries do not view Washington's plans quite the same way.
In the news conference, Putin also called for peace in the Middle East, saying the current Israeli-Palestinian violence has "practically erased" past progress on finding a solution. He also spoke in favor of lifting sanctions against Iraq.
He dismissed calls to remove the body of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin from a Red Square mausoleum, saying it could lead to civil unrest. He also praised a series of reform laws recently adopted by the parliament's lower house as a move toward "liberalization of the economy and the exclusion of unfounded state intervention."
Putin appeared at ease at the press conference, answering every question and going beyond the scheduled one-hour length.
Previously, Putin had confined his interviews mostly to carefully managed sessions where his staff tried to screen most questions, or to meetings with small groups of reporters where follow-up questions were frowned upon.