- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 1999

President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin traded sharp taunts over Chechnya Thursday, widening the worst rift in U.S.-Russia relations since the Cold War ended.
The verbal jousts escalated as the United States ordered a Russian diplomat out of the country for spying, another flashback to an era of U.S.-Russia confrontation.
“It seems Mr. Clinton has forgotten Russia is a great power that possesses a nuclear arsenal,” Mr. Yeltsin said during a visit to Beijing.
“We aren’t afraid at all of Clinton’s anti-Russian position. I want to tell President Clinton that he alone cannot dictate how the world should live, work and play. It is us who will dictate.”
Mr. Clinton returned the jab at the White House.
“I haven’t forgotten that,” Mr. Clinton said. “You know, I didn’t think he’d forgotten that America was a great power when he disagreed with what I did in Kosovo.”
The verbal sparring over Chechnya took a sharp turn this week after Russia vowed to kill all Chechens who do not flee Grozny by Saturday.
The war of words illustrates a growing list of U.S.-Russia disputes over spy expulsions, missile defense, NATO expansion, the war in Kosovo, Russia’s squandering of international loans and America’s sponsorship of a Caspian pipeline that bypasses Russia.
Mr. Yeltsin referred to Russia’s nuclear arsenal as his visit to Beijing appeared to indicate a warming relationship between Russia and China.
Mr. Clinton tried to tone down the rhetoric before he flew to Massachusetts for a memorial service in honor of six Worcester firefighters.
“We can’t get too serious about” the verbal jousting, he said. “Let’s not talk about what the leaders are saying and all these words of criticism. Let’s focus on what the country is doing. Is it right or wrong? Will it work or not? What are the consequences?”
“I don’t agree with what’s going on there. And I think I have an obligation to say so.”
Mr. Clinton said at a news conference Wednesday that the United States should not cut off aid to Russia because two-thirds of the money goes to denuclearization and safeguarding nuclear materials. The other third promotes democracy.
Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said Thursday that America’s policy of engagement with Russia is unchanged.
“We have a broad range of shared interests in the U.S.-Russia relationship and we intend to continue to pursue them,” he said.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union, denounced Mr. Yeltsin’s reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
“I hope this wasn’t a carefully considered statement,” Mr. Gorbachev told Russia’s private television channel NTV. “It is not serious for such a high-level politician.”
Earlier this year, the United States complained to Russia that its spying was approaching Cold War levels. U.S. officials asked Russia through diplomatic channels to cut back, suggesting that a failure to do so could result in forced expulsions.
On Wednesday, Washington ordered Russian diplomat Stanislav Gusev to leave the country. U.S. officials said they caught him monitoring a listening device found in a State Department conference room.
Last week, Russia gave a U.S. Embassy second secretary, Cheri Leberknight, 10 days to leave that country. Russian counterintelligence said it had caught her red-handed and equipped with James Bond-style spy gadgets.
Mr. Clinton says Russia has a right to protect its territorial integrity and to crack down on terrorism. But for weeks Mr. Clinton has urged Mr. Yeltsin to halt indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Chechnya. Mr. Clinton’s warnings became more dire when Russia vowed to kill Chechens who do not leave Grozny by Saturday.
“Russia will pay a heavy price for those actions, with each passing day sinking more deeply into a morass that will intensify extremism and diminish its own standing in the world,” Mr. Clinton said Monday.
In Istanbul Nov. 18, Mr. Clinton publicly scolded Mr. Yeltsin about Chechnya during a European security summit. But the Russian president left the summit after vowing to continue fighting “bandits and murderers.”
Mr. Yeltsin’s public jousting may have been for public consumption. During a private meeting with Mr. Clinton at the Istanbul summit, Mr. Yeltsin greeted Mr. Clinton with a bear hug and asked him for help in safeguarding Russia’s plutonium stockpile.
At the same summit Turkey, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Azerbaijan signed an accord to build a pipeline that would carry oil from the Caspian region to the Mediterranean. The pact gives the West access to Caspian oil without relying upon Russia.
U.S.-Russian tensions have have built since the spring. On March 12, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic formally joined NAT0, extending the alliance’s borders east toward Russia.
Twelve days later, NATO began its 78-day bombing campaign in Kosovo. The Russian parliament reacted by putting ratification of the START II nuclear treaty on hold.
Russia opposes U.S. plans to revise the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. George W. Bush, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, says he would build a missile defense system regardless of whether Russia agrees to modify the treaty.
“There is a serious fraying in the relationship” between the United States and Russia, said Thomas Graham, a senior associate in the Russia/ Eurasia department at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mr. Yeltsin’s reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal sounds like a bluff, an indication that Russia “is beginning to feel some pressure from the West on Chechnya,” he said.
Mr. Yeltsin is “pointing to the one last attribute of a great power.”
Russian troops marched into two key Chechen strongholds Thursday expecting heavy fighting but found them little more than ghost towns as rebels began to retreat to the safety of the mountains.
Russian generals have been incredulous at the ease of their advance. Federal forces are close to winning complete control over the breakaway republic’s heartland after the fall of Urus-Martan, nine miles southwest of the capital, Grozny, on Wednesday evening, and Shali, 12 miles to the southeast, Thursday.
An estimated 3,500 rebels were believed to be holding out in Urus-Martan and 1,000 in Shali. But when federal troops began clearing the two towns yesterday they found them nearly deserted. Rebel defenders had melted away in the night.

This story is based in part on wire service reports

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