Boris to Bill: Butt Out: Relations between Washington and Moscow Have Hit a Post-Cold-War Low over Russia's Brutal Campaign in Chechnya

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Bill Clinton tried conjuring up the Boris Yeltsin of old last week, the one who eight years ago stood defiantly on a tank and saved Russia's fledgling democracy. "One of the most thrilling experiences of my life, as a citizen of the world, was when you stood up on the tank in Moscow," Clinton told Yeltsin, at an Istanbul summit of 54 nations. "If they had put you in jail instead of electing you president, I would have hoped that every leader of every country around this table would have stood up for you and not said, 'Well, that is an internal Russian affair'." The point to all this tear-jerking rhetoric: Russia, thinks Clinton, should heed U.S. objections to Yeltsin's nasty war in the breakaway region of Chechnya.

The Boris Yeltsin of 1999, sitting across the room from Clinton, was decidedly unmoved by the president's little speech. "You have no right to criticize Russia for Chechnya," Yeltsin had declared at the summit. "There will be no negotiations with bandits and murderers." Looking healthier than he has for months (though still but a shadow of his tank-bestriding self), Russia's president was in no mood for Western hectoring. Yeltsin is now in his final year in office, and Russia is living through a combustible political season. The country's parliamentary elections are just one month away; the vote for Yeltsin's successor comes next summer. The conflict in Chechnya, Russia's second war in the region in five years, is wildly popular among the voters. Yeltsin, said one member of his delegation, didn't quite know what to make of Clinton's odd peroration. "Forgive him, but he didn't exactly see what his standing on the tank had to do with getting rid of Chechen bandits."

At no time since the end of the cold war have relations between Moscow and the United States been as touchy as they now are. Western leaders, faced with televised scenes of miserable refugees fleeing heavy Russian bombing, are threatening to stanch the flow of economic aid to Russia. In a high-profile speech on Friday, leading Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush called for halting aid to Moscow as long as it is "bombing women and children." And the Clinton administration concedes that it's looking at curtailing millions of dollars in Export-Import Bank credits to Moscow.

The Kremlin, however, isn't likely to back away from its Chechen campaign. The Russian military, still furious over its limited role during the NATO bombing war in Kosovo, wears U.S. objections to the war in Chechnya as a badge of honor. At the end of the week the campaign only intensified, as Russian troops surrounded Grozny, the Chechen capital. Russia is convinced the West is trying to enforce a double standard: Moscow accuses NATO of having carried out its own "indiscriminate" bombing during the Kosovo war, thereby creating a massive refugee problem. Asks Yeltsin: what's the difference between the two? The United States argues that Kosovar-Albanian refugees were ultimately able to return home; Russians counter that Chechnya's citizens will regain their homes, too, once "bandits" have been cleared out. …