Prime Minister Vladimir Putin brushed aside today a warning from President Clinton that Russia would pay a "heavy price" if it carries out a threatened military offensive against the Chechen capital of Grozny.
In a stern tone, Putin told reporters after a meeting of the Kremlin Security Council that the West's objections were misplaced. He said that if the West is "really so worried" about the war, then "let them use their influence . . . not only to bring some sort of pressure to bear on the Russian leadership" but also on the "bandits" in Chechnya who are holding Western hostages.
While Putin did not specifically reject Clinton's warnings, his comments made it clear that Russia would not heed the president's words. He vowed that the Russian leadership will complete the "counter-terrorist operation," as the Russians have called the offensive in Chechnya. The Russian military continued bombing and shelling Grozny and surrounding areas today, according to reports from the region.
Putin's defiant tone came the day after Russian planes dropped leaflets over Grozny, the bomb-cratered capital, delivering a stark ultimatum to civilians, saying they should leave by Saturday or face intensified air and military strikes. "Everyone who fails to leave . . . will be destroyed," the leaflets said.
Clinton had sharply criticized the move, saying Russia "will pay a heavy price for these actions." Today, criticism continued to mount. Javier Solana, head of the European Union's foreign and defense policy, told Spanish national radio, "The Russians are making a mistake, in a dramatic way, because they are not going to resolve the problem like this. What they may do is aggravate it."
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen told reporters at the Pentagon, "This activity is not acceptable." In London, the British Foreign Office summoned the Russian ambassador for a protest. NATO Secretary General George Robertson told reporters in Washington before a meeting with Clinton that Russia was dealing "ham-fistedly" with the conflict. "Whatever the circumstances the Russians are dealing with at the moment, to deliver that sort of ultimatum is not acceptable," he said.
Putin, speaking to reporters here, also made an unexpected announcement that the Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, had sent his family out of the region and that they are now under the protection of the Russian security service.
The Chechen leaders "have long ago taken all their relatives beyond the territory which is still under their control. They took them to safe places," Putin said. "Even the person who calls himself the president . . . he has long ago sent his family to a different region of the Russia Federation."
The Interfax news agency reported that Maskhadov's family first went to neighboring Ingushetia at the invitation of the president there, Ruslan Aushev, and later fled elsewhere. Putin said they are "under control and under protection" of the Russian security services, but did not elaborate.
Putin said the Chechens had sent some of their people out of the country to avoid the war but were using others "as a live shield cover in order to protect their criminal plans and their skin."
Putin repeated earlier statements that Russia would try to protect civilians. However, Grozny residents were reported to be unaware of, or refusing to use, a "safe corridor" that Russian troops promised to create. As of today, no one had passed through, according to reports from the area.
Viktor Kazantsev, chief Russian commander in Chechnya, denied that Russia had issued an ultimatum to the estimated 40,000 civilians in Grozny. "I did not say this word anywhere and did not make an ultimatum to anybody," Kazantsev said of the leaflets. "I made a warning."
Internal Affairs Minister Vladimir Rushaylo, speaking to NTV television from outside Grozny, indicated some leeway in the Saturday deadline for refugees. The safe passage checkpoint near the village of Pervomaiskoye would operate beyond Saturday, he said.
Meanwhile, Russian officials reacted with resignation to the prospect of a postponement of the release of International Monetary Fund loans. The formal reason for the delay is that Russia needs to make structural economic reforms, but a senior Russian official, Viktor Khristenko, said, "Big, serious, sometimes even rude politics was involved here."
CAPTION: Russian helicopters kick up dust near Urus Martan, a town 12 miles southwest of Grozny that Russia has bombed and shelled in recent weeks.
CAPTION: A Russian officer takes up position in the Chechen town of Argun. A Russian general denied that Moscow told Chechens to give up or die.