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Published: Saturday April 19, 2014 MYT 4:10:02 PM
Updated: Saturday April 19, 2014 MYT 4:10:57 PM

Putin welcomes new NATO head, says better ties with West possible

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed NATO's selection of former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg as its new head, saying on Saturday the pair had "very good relations" but that it was up to the West to improve ties.

Relations between Russia and the NATO military alliance are at their worst since the Cold War following Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, a move Putin said on Thursday was partly influenced by NATO's expansion into eastern Europe.

In an interview with the state-run Rossiya television station, to be broadcast later on Saturday, Putin indicated that the appointment of Stoltenberg, who takes over in October, could help ties.

"We have very good relations, including personal relations. This is a very serious, responsible person," Putin said, according to a pre-transmission transcript provided to news organisations.

"But let's see how he will develop relations in his new capacity," he said in the interview, for the Russian news show Vesti on Saturday with Sergei Brilyov.

In a sign of his strained ties with current NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Putin repeated an accusation that the former Danish prime minister had secretly taped and leaked a private conversation between them, a charge Rasmussen has denied.

Putin said there was no reason why relations between Russia and the West can not improve, but that it was up to the West to make that happen.

"I think there is nothing that would hinder a normalisation and normal cooperation" with the West, Putin said.

"This does not depend on us. Or rather not only on us. This depends on our partners."

Putin did not name any specific measures that the West should take. But his spokesman on Friday indicated that a lack of respect from the West was a major factor, saying it was treating Russia like a "guilty schoolboy".

In a sign of the difficulty of reaching a compromise on the position of Crimea, which the West considers part of Ukraine, Putin said he would award medals to Russians who served during its seizure.

"Of course there will be state decorations," he said.

He also rejected criticism of Crimea's referendum on independence, which took place under Russian occupation, saying that 83 percent of the peninsula's voters went to the polls, something it would have been "impossible" to stage.

He dismissed comparisons made by Western analysts between Russia's "anti-terror" operations in Chechnya in the 1990s and actions being taken by the Ukrainian government against pro-Russian separatists.

"These were properly formed, well prepared groups who were supplied and armed from aboard. This is a big difference," Putin said.

(Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by Anthony Barker)

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