- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 1999

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said yesterday the assault to take the encircled city of Grozny could come at any time, giving Russian forces control of all of Chechnya's heartland.
Russian news agencies said the orders had already been given to take the capital, where an estimated 8,000 Chechen fighters and thousands of civilian residents of the city remain holed up. But Mr. Putin refused to name a date when the assault would begin.
The end of the campaign "is close, but we won't set any specific dates or time limitations," Mr. Putin told the Itar-Tass news agency yesterday.
In Moscow, meanwhile, a Russian general dimmed already slim prospects of a breakthrough at arms control talks with the United States yesterday, saying Moscow would not drop its opposition to U.S. plans to build an anti-missile shield.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott met Mr. Putin and other officials for talks on issues including arms control, which has put further pressure on the two countries' already strained relations.
Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, head of the military's foreign affairs department, said Moscow opposed making changes to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), which Washington wants altered to let it build the new missile defense.
"Why has a delegation arrived here? Russia is not holding any talks with the United States about its withdrawal from the ABM Treaty," Gen. Ivashov told a news conference. "The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is fundamental to all military disarmament agreements."
The ABM Treaty bans systems designed to shoot enemy missiles out of the sky, under the logic that allowing such defenses would have tempted Cold War-era foes to stockpile ever larger arsenals of nuclear missiles to pierce the enemy's umbrella.
The United States wants the treaty modified to allow it to build a limited defense, to protect itself and its allies from a possible missile launch by what it calls "rogue" states, such as North Korea and Iran.
Gen. Ivashov said any attempt to leave or scrap the treaty would make it harder for Moscow to persuade its parliament to ratify the START II treaty, which outlines big cuts in nuclear arsenals. The treaty was signed in 1993.
Mr. Putin has said he hoped Russia's State Duma, the lower house of parliament, would soon ratify START II. A general election on Sunday reduced the opposition Communists' domination of the Duma and strengthened the hand of pro-government groups.
In the North Caucasus region yesterday, Gen. Viktor Kazantsev, commander of Russia's forces, indicated that the capture of Grozny would follow the pattern of recent Russian military advances aggressive aerial and artillery assaults backed up by cautious ground advances.
"There is and can be no question of any storming" of the city, he told the Interfax news agency from Russia's southern army base in Mozdok, just across the border from Chechnya.
Chechen commander Adam Baibulatov said yesterday that about 1,000 Russian paratroopers had landed three miles from the southern border with Georgia a week ago and were surrounded by rebel forces, taking heavy losses.
"Chechen fighters have established a tight noose" around the paratroopers, Mr. Baibulatov said in Duba-Yurt, 20 miles south of Grozny in the mountains' foothills.
Russian officials confirmed that paratroopers had been dispatched to the area to cut rebel supply lines to Grozny but denied yesterday they had been surrounded by Chechen forces.

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