MOSCOW Acting President Vladimir Putin, who held extended talks yesterday with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, stood his ground on Moscow’s battle to regain control of Chechnya. But he said the United States “was putting some pressures” on Russia.
Mrs. Albright conceded she had failed to persuade Mr. Putin to pull back in Chechnya, where Russian troops Tuesday seized control of the capital after a five-month assault on the republic that has resulted in thousands of battlefield casualties and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.
The talks came as Russian forces backed by tanks and artillery yesterday were battling to prevent Chechen militants from reaching rebel forces in the mountains south of Grozny, the capital.
“We did not mince words, either of us, on Chechnya,” Mrs. Albright said. Still, the talks went nowhere.
“I don’t think we are any closer to a political solution on Chechnya,” she said after a three-hour Kremlin meeting, originally scheduled for about 60 minutes. Her meeting was the first by a senior U.S. official with Mr. Putin since he succeeded Boris Yeltsin on New Year’s Eve.
For his part, Mr. Putin said “the United States is putting certain pressures on Russia,” but added that he remained committed to his policies.
“There have been ups and downs in our relationship,” he acknowledged, speaking at a photo-op.
Mr. Putin said he was interested in greater self-rule for the Chechens and for stability in the area.
But Mrs. Albright said, “I didn’t hear how he intended to get from here to there.”
Toward that end, Mr. Putin authorized Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to pursue a U.S. proposal to send a mission to Chechnya to make a “humanitarian needs assessment,” Mrs. Albright said.
Mr. Putin also “took on board” her suggestion that more reporters be permitted to go to the embattled republic, Mrs. Albright said.
“I found him a very well-informed person and a good interlocutor, obviously a Russian patriot,” she told reporters. “What is important now is to watch what he does.”
State Department officials had presented Mrs. Albright’s trip as an opportunity to take the measure of Mr. Putin. In the days before her arrival, both Mrs. Albright and her deputy, Strobe Talbott, hardened their public comments about Russia.
In two speeches delivered in Europe, Mr. Talbot warned of a possible resurgence of Russian nationalism and questioned Mr. Putin’s oft-declared aim to restore Russia’s military greatness.
And Mrs. Albright said on several occasions that she was not “starry-eyed” about Russia but believed it was important to work and cooperate with the Russians.
She stayed with that approach and yesterday emphasized that she could see no point in imposing sanctions on Russia for its Chechen war.
Likewise Mr. Putin sought to lessen U.S.-Russian differences.
“Russian-American relations have a global nature and Russia views the United States as its main partner on the whole range of policy,” Mr. Putin told Mrs. Albright in televised remarks at the start of their talks.
Alexi Arbatov, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s defense committee, was much more harsh in his assessment of Mrs. Albright’s talks with Mr. Putin.
“What she said is hypocritical after what NATO did in Yugoslavia,” Mr. Arbatov said in a conference call from Moscow with journalists in Washington.
“The West will not make Russia end the aggression in Chechnya. The greater Western pressure, the greater will be Russian reaction to use force,” he said.
He said Mrs. Albright has taken U.S.-Russian relations to an all-time low.
Aside of Chechnya, the Kremlin meeting focused on nuclear arms-control issues.
The Russian leader indicated again that he supports the idea of a swift ratification of the START II nuclear arms reduction treaty, which is still awaiting approval by Russia’s State Duma.
The Russian leader also apparently showed understanding of the need for “strong, effective controls” of arms and nuclear technology exports.
The United States, which fears Russian nuclear know-how may fall into the hands of rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, has clashed frequently with Moscow about arms sales.
But on changes to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Mr. Putin was less forthcoming.
The Russians have remained firm in their opposition to amendments to the treaty amendments that would allow the United States to deploy a limited national missile-defense system.
Mrs. Albright, who flew to Croatia later yesterday, also discussed the building of a market economy and civil society in Russia.
In Croatia, Mrs. Albright hailed recent democratic changes, saying they set an example for neighboring Serbia and marked a major step in the region’s democratic evolution.
Mrs. Albright also met Social Democratic Prime Minister Ivica Racan and other officials of the new center-left government that ousted the hard-line HDZ of late President Franjo Tudjman in a Jan. 3 election.
Ines Capdevila contributed to this report.