- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2000

MOSCOW Acting President Vladimir Putin, in what diplomats here describe as a "calculated rebuff" to international critics of his Chechnya war, yesterday promoted a number of generals, including the air force chief overseeing the pounding of Chechen villages and the razing of Grozny.

As he handed out gold braid boosting the heads of the air force and navy from three-star to four-star rank, Mr. Putin said the war in Chechnya had raised the morale of the Russian military and boosted its standing in Russian society.

"The army has regained trust in itself, and society believes in and trusts its army," Mr. Putin told an audience of mainly high-ranking military and security officers gathered in the Kremlin's majestic Alexander Hall for a Soviet-era army holiday.

The acting president, heavily favored to win a full term in presidential voting March 26, called Chechnya "a turning point for the armed forces and security services, and for the Russian authorities as a whole."

President Clinton has hailed his counterpart as a man the West "can do business with," but Mr. Putin has pursued both confrontation and conciliation since replacing the ailing Boris Yeltsin on Dec. 31.

Russian Security Council chief Sergei Ivanov carried a message from Mr. Putin to U.S. leaders last week that Russian and American strategic goals "largely coincided," in spite of disagreements over Chechnya, missile policy and other issues.

Mr. Ivanov met during a four-day visit with Mr. Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger, among others. He said in a briefing at the Russian Embassy on Friday that he had come to restore "predictability" to the bilateral relationship.

Mr. Ivanov said U.S. relations remain a priority for Russia and suggested that Moscow was softening past refusals to consider any change in the 1972 treaty restricting national missile defense systems of the kind the United States is now testing.

But Chechnya remains a great divide between the two powers.

Russian bombers were on the offensive again yesterday, with waves of attacks on a gorge in southern Chechnya where a large contingent of rebel fighters is based.

Sergei Yastrzembsky, Mr. Putin's spokesman on the war, said as many as 4,500 Chechen fighters are trapped in the gorge.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who reviewed a Russian military parade yesterday in the bombed-out Chechen capital of Grozny, said his troops hoped to encircle the Chechen fighters to prevent ambush attacks in the large swaths of the country held by Moscow's troops.

"The main thing is not to let the bandits out, to finish them off in the areas where you have pushed them," Mr. Sergeyev said.

In his speech yesterday, Mr. Putin studiously ignored Western complaints of human rights abuses in Chechnya, which have increased dramatically in the past few days.

And he made no reference to the tough weekend warning by U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson that Russia's generals could face prosecution at the International Court at The Hague for their actions in the breakaway Chechen republic.

His theme at the gathering, officially dedicated to tomorrow's "Day of the Defender of the Fatherland," known in Communist times as the "Day of the Soviet Army," focused entirely the Russian military's crushing of the rebels in Chechnya.

"The way the operation is unfolding and the results already achieved show the real potential of our state, its defense capability," Mr. Putin said.

Mrs. Robinson renewed her condemnation of Russian actions in Chechnya yesterday, denouncing the Kremlin for refusing to open detention camps in Chechnya to international observers investigating reports of rape, torture and summary executions of Chechen prisoners.

Mrs. Robinson, a former Irish president, told the Reuters news agency that Russia must offer a "credible response" to the growing allegations of abuse by its forces during its five-month campaign in Chechnya.

She voiced particular concern about reports from the Chernokozovo detention camp 30 miles north of Grozny. According to escapees, Russian guards had raped women and men and beaten detainees with iron bars.

Moscow has denied the claims of abuse of prisoners and other human rights violations, although for the first time over the weekend military spokesmen acknowledged there may have been some "discreditable actions" by individual soldiers.

The U.N. rights chief was joined yesterday in her criticism by European Union External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten, who said reports of human rights violations in Chechnya showed the urgent need to have international observers permanently based in the region.

But the Kremlin is under little domestic pressure to respond. The latest opinion polls suggest that 70 percent of Russians now support Mr. Putin's war.

The course of recent polls indicates that Western criticism of Russian actions in Chechnya may actually be boosting the president's popularity ratings.

One political commentator calculates that every time the West attacks Mr. Putin or criticizes the war, it is worth three or four points to the Russian leader.

David R. Sands in Washington contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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