MOSCOW Russia and the West headed for confrontation yesterday as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin brushed aside criticism of military action in Chechnya and European leaders threatened to impose economic sanctions as early as this weekend.
In London, Yuri Fokin, the Russian ambassador, was summoned to the Foreign Office to be told bluntly of the British government’s concern over an ultimatum to civilians to leave Grozny, the Chechen capital, by Saturday or risk destruction by shelling and bombing.
“We cannot continue to assist Russia if Russia does not respect basic humanitarian norms,” Robin Cook, the British foreign secretary, told parliament. He said that he expected the European Union summit in Helsinki this weekend to review Western assistance to Russia if it carried out its threat.
[The White House suggested yesterday that Washington was unlikely to cut off aid to Russia despite President Clinton’s statement that Moscow would “pay a heavy price” for its onslaught on Chechnya.
[White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters that most U.S. assistance to Russia went to reduce its nuclear threat and to promote democracy and said that ending such aid to express displeasure over Chechnya would hurt U.S. national interests.
[Russia is engaged in a grinding war with Muslim separatist guerrillas that has already driven some 200,000 refugees from the north Caucasus region. Moscow issued an ultimatum Monday for Chechens to leave its capital, Grozny, by Saturday or be killed.]
Massimo D’Alema, Italy’s prime minister, said: “What’s happening in Chechnya is horrible, unacceptable. We told the Russians that very strongly at the recent OSCE summit in Istanbul and again in recent days. We’ve asked them to stop.” He was referring to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
President Jacques Chirac of France has also denounced the Russian action.
But Mr. Putin suggested that “representatives of some foreign states” would do better to lay off Russia and come down hard on the Chechens instead.
“Let them use their influence, not just to pressure the Russian leadership but also to ensure that the bandits release their hostages, both Russian citizens and foreigners,” said Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer.
The Russian Foreign Ministry denounced the EU’s “language of economic sanctions and diktat” as “unacceptable, all the more so when it concerns the issue of Russia’s territorial integrity and the fight against terrorism.”
Meanwhile, President Boris Yeltsin is heading for the one place where he could be sure of a warm welcome, devoid of any hint of criticism for his bloodletting. Tomorrow, he begins a state visit to China, which has already defined the carnage in Chechnya as a “purely internal matter.”
In Grozny yesterday, civilians trapped in their ruined homes by the fighting pleaded for more time to flee as Russia’s top general in the Caucasus insisted that demands that they must leave were “a warning,” not “an ultimatum.”
Leaflets threatening that “all those who do not leave the city will be destroyed” had been dropped over Grozny, the military claimed. But residents, most now living in cellars to shelter from the bombardment, said they had seen none.
Many had been blown by the wind into the suburbs, it was reported, while most people in Grozny, a city without electricity, gas or water and running low on food, have no access to television or radio.
A corridor allowing the 30,000 or so civilians left in Grozny to leave in safety and find shelter elsewhere in Russian-controlled Chechnya was already open, said Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s emergencies minister.
Those who see a copy of the leaflet and elect to stay behind after the Saturday deadline can be under little illusion as to their fate.
“Those who remain will be viewed as terrorists and bandits,” the leaflet says. “They will be destroyed by artillery and aviation. There will be no more talk. All those who do not leave the city will be destroyed.”
Gen. Ruslan Aushev, the president of neighboring Ingushetia, predicted carnage and massive civilian casualties once the deadline expires.