Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an unexpected gesture to the West, suggested in a television interview today that Russia would consider joining NATO if the Western alliance agreed to treat Russia as an equal partner.

"Why not? Why not?" Putin said when asked by BBC interviewer David Frost about Russian membership. "I do not rule out such a possibility . . . in the case that Russia's interests will be reckoned with, if it will be an equal partner."

"Russia is a part of European culture, and I do not consider my own country in isolation from Europe and from . . . what we often talk about as the civilized world," Putin said. "Therefore, it is with difficulty that I imagine NATO as an enemy."

Putin's remark, made three weeks before Russia's presidential election, comes as Russia is facing criticism at home and abroad for alleged human rights abuses against civilians in the war in Chechnya. Some of the strongest criticism has come from European human rights groups.

The remark also follows a series of positive gestures from the West, including a recent declaration by President Clinton that Putin is someone "we can do business with." The administration appears hopeful that the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, will soon ratify the START II arms reduction treaty and that a summit could be held with Putin afterward to mark progress toward a new treaty, despite continuing disagreements on anti-ballistic missile defenses.

In practice, Russia and NATO have had a strained relationship since Russia acquiesced to NATO's expansion into Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic last spring. Such programs as Partnership for Peace, a planned military cooperation effort, and a joint Russia-NATO council have achieved little. When NATO attacked Yugoslavia last spring, the Russian military and political leadership reacted with anger and bitterness, freezing the relationship. When the fighting ended, Russia further aggravated NATO by sending its soldiers into Kosovo ahead of NATO peacekeepers.

While tensions have eased, Russian officials expressed irritation that a recent NATO meeting was held in Ukraine, and Russian officials have steadfastly opposed NATO inclusion of any former Soviet republics, some of which have expressed interest in joining.

Putin's statement on NATO drew immediate reaction at home. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, a presidential candidate, said it is "naive and unpardonable for a politician of his level" to make such a statement. Putin, he said, "lacks understanding of foreign policy issues. In such a case, he should at least hire knowledgeable foreign policy advisers."

However, several others supported Putin. Vladimir Lukin, a former ambassador to the United States and now a deputy speaker in parliament, said Russia could join if NATO reduced its military focus and became more of a political organization. "Basically, Putin is right, but this will be a long and complex work," Lukin said. Putin's gesture came as he faces demands to spell out his views before the March 26 election, in which he is the clear favorite. So far, Putin has published no program. Instead, he has blended political palliatives with threats and warnings to Russia's powerful tycoons and the media.

For example, Putin was criticized by the newspaper Sevodnya this weekend for using his incumbency to campaign. The newspaper is part of the media empire of Vladimir Gusinsky and has been especially critical in its reporting on the Kremlin. Saturday, Putin's campaign staff issued a statement denouncing the newspaper and those who "rock the boat" and "sow the seeds of doubt" about Putin. The campaign headquarters vowed to use "asymmetric response to acts of provocation."

On the same day, the government's war propaganda office issued a statement accusing Putin's critics of trying to "derail the election" and "prevent strengthening of a competent power in Russia." Putin warned Russia's oil barons Friday to stop hiding their profits in overseas bank accounts. He said it was a "legitimate question" to ask how much money from Russia's energy industry "is among those billion and a half dollars that flow out of the country monthly." He added, "It is no secret to anybody that the oil companies are using offshore" banks to conceal their money.