Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, responding to Western criticism of the Russian offensive in Chechnya, accused the United States today of trying to edge out Russia from the Caucasus and oil-rich Caspian Sea regions.
In unusually defiant tones, Sergeyev used a speech before top military brass to indicate that Russia would pay no heed to calls from the West to rein in the military action in Chechnya. He said that a successful military operation by Russia would raise its international prestige across the region, a status that he said is unacceptable to the United States.
Sergeyev spoke less than a week before a top-level international meeting in Turkey, to be attended by President Clinton and senior Russian representatives, where Moscow may face renewed pressure on Chechnya.
His remarks also came at a key point for Moscow in the conflict as Russian troops entered Chechnya's second largest city, Gudermes, where they met little resistance.
Sergeyev said the NATO attack on Serbia earlier this year was "graphic proof" of an aggressive side to Western policy.
"This Western policy constitutes a challenge to Russia, a challenge aimed at weakening its international positions and edging it out of the strategically important regions of the world, primarily from the Caspian region, the Transcaucasia and Central Asia," he said.
"The national interests of the United States would best of all be served by an option whereby an armed, controllable conflict would perpetually smolder on the territory of the North Caucasus."
In Washington, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart called Sergeyev's attack "a misguided characterization" of U.S. policy, the Associated Press reported. "They know quite well what our position is and what our interest in this case is."
Sergeyev's comments came in advance of the summit in Istanbul, starting Thursday, of leaders of more than 50 countries belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Russia today said it rejected a role for both the OSCE and the United Nations in settling the Chechen conflict, which it calls strictly an internal matter. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it is pulling out of Chechnya because the situation has become too dangerous; a Red Cross civilian convoy was attacked recently by Russian warplanes. Aid workers have been struggling to cope with a tide of 200,000 refugees who have fled the fighting and crowded into neighboring Ingushetia.
Sergeyev's remarks also reflect Russia's anxiety over loss of influence in the Caspian region, as the United States and others intensify efforts to build export routes for oil and gas that will not go through Russia and will be beyond its control.
But Sergeyev's bristling speech offered no clues about Moscow's next steps in Chechnya, which sources said is a subject of internal conflict here. A major split that began earlier between Sergeyev and chief of the general staff Anatoly Kvashnin is deepening, informed sources said. Sergeyev has concluded there is no victory to be had in Chechnya and favors a relatively quick exit, while Kvashnin opposes any pullback, the sources said.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called a rare Kremlin Security Council meeting for Saturday to discuss the conflict.
Gudermes was once a stronghold of Chechen rebels, and Russia suffered heavy losses there in the 1994-96 Chechen war, but today interior ministry troops and the military rolled through empty streets.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin this week granted a pardon to Bislan Gantamirov, a former mayor of the Chechen capital of Grozny, who was convicted in 1996 of large-scale theft of government funds and sentenced to six years in jail for embezzling aid money. Gantamirov announced his plans to support the Russian troops and said he plans to go to Chechnya soon.