President Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin of Russia held an election-year summit in the Kremlin today in which they nudged forward a resolution of two arms control disputes, declared their admiration for each other and brushed off criticism of Russia's war against Chechen separatists.
With Clinton at his side at a news conference, Yeltsin bluntly declared that "military actions in the Chechnya region are not going on" and had ceased with his March 31 peace initiative.
Yeltsin's statement came after Russia suffered one of the bloodiest single days since the Kremlin sent troops into the breakaway region in December 1994. Last week, a column of Russian troops was ambushed on a mountain road southwest of Grozny, and as many as 93 soldiers were killed. Yeltsin acknowledged two days ago he was shaken by the attack, which prompted suggestions that Defense Minister Pavel Grachev should resign.
The ambush was only the latest violence in Chechnya since Yeltsin announced his plan for a cease-fire and negotiations through intermediaries with the Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev. The peace plan, which also included selective Russian troop withdrawals, has stalled. Grachev told parliament Friday that 122 Russian troops have been killed since Yeltsin's truce initiative was announced.
Russian troops have continued to shell Chechen villages where rebels are suspected to be, including some villages where elders had signed peace agreements. Yeltsin dismissed the Chechens as a few "bands" of fighters who "are still running around" and "making life difficult for a lot of people."
The war is a continuing threat to Yeltsin's reelection chances. Polls published this weekend show that voters identify stopping the war as their top priority for whoever is elected Russia's next president.
Clinton remained silent on Yeltsin's assertion that military activities had ceased. Clinton, while calling for a diplomatic settlement, also offered a justification for the war that the Russians first used in the early weeks of the fighting.
Asked whether the United States should have been more critical of Russia's use of force, which has claimed more than 30,000 lives, Clinton replied: "I think it depends. . . . Do you believe that Chechnya is a part of Russia, or not?
"I would remind you that we once had a civil war in our country in which we lost, on a per capita basis, far more people than we lost in any of the wars of the 20th century, over the proposition that Abraham Lincoln gave his life for, that no state had a right to withdrawal from our union," Clinton said.
He added the United States "has taken the position that Chechnya is a part of Russia, but that in the end, a free country has to have free association, so there would have to be something beyond the fighting, there would have to be a diplomatic solution."
However, the Muslim Chechens never agreed to be part of Russia but were conquered by its armies in the 19th century, and the whole population was deported by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in World War II.
Clinton said Yeltsin asked him for help with Chechnya. A White House official said this included a request that Clinton call King Hassan II of Morocco. Yeltsin said Hassan has agreed to be an intermediary. Yeltsin has often charged that the Chechen rebels are being financed and armed by Arab and Islamic forces from abroad.
After meeting for nearly three hours, Clinton and Yeltsin said they came closer to resolving a pair of arms control disputes. One involves the 30-nation Conventional Forces in Europe treaty. Russia has failed to meet limitations on armaments under the treaty in two regions, including the north Caucasus, primarily because of the Chechen war. Clinton said he and Yeltsin made progress toward a compromise to be reviewed at a conference in May.
Clinton also said he and Yeltsin had "made real progress" on alleviating Russian concerns about whether the United States would adhere to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty while preparing to deploy what is called theater missile defense. A U.S. official said Yeltsin responded favorably to Clinton's presentation.
A senior administration official said Clinton also asked Yeltsin for more information about a massive military underground facility that Russia is building in the Yamantau mountain in the southern Urals. The facility is believed to be a nuclear weapons command and control center, but not everything about its purpose is known.
Yeltsin also declared that Clinton had agreed not to push the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, at Russia's request. "President Clinton promised this, and somehow to influence his colleagues," Yeltsin said, suggesting that eventually Russia could have a veto on which countries joined NATO. Clinton, however, said his position favoring NATO expansion "hasn't changed."
The summit was marked by the upbeat political banter that also characterized the weekend summit on nuclear security. Yeltsin called the president "Bill," and Clinton reciprocated with compliments, saying that "thanks to President Yeltsin's leadership," much of the Russian economy was privatized.
Asked about a possible Communist victory in the June 16 presidential election, Yeltsin replied tartly, "I am sure that I will be victorious." Clinton said, "That makes my answer irrelevant, doesn't it?"
Later, Clinton met for a closed roundtable discussion with a dozen Russian political figures, including Communist presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov, who leads Yeltsin in recent polls. Clinton "showed no antagonism toward myself and my supporters," Zyuganov said. Anatoly Chubais, the economic reformer fired by Yeltsin in January, said he warned Clinton that while Zyuganov talks about supporting private property, the Communists would try to confiscate it if elected.
The 12 politicians also included presidential candidates Grigory Yavlinsky and retired Gen. Alexander Lebed and a few regional governors, including Boris Nemtsov of Nizhny Novgorod, a popular young reformist. Nemtsov told reporters later that he had commented to Clinton that his opponent, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), has no chance of being elected president because he looks too much like the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
"Be careful," Clinton reportedly responded, "or Zyuganov will endorse him." Clinton later left for Washington, arriving late tonight. CAPTION: Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin walk single file as they head to their joint news conference after a one-day bilateral summit meeting in Moscow.