Washington, 31 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin say relations between their two countries are too important to disrupt, even in the face of policy differences over Iraq.
White House spokesman David Leavy told reporters on Wednesday that this view emerged during a telephone conversation between Clinton and Yeltsin. Leavy says the call was initiated by Clinton shortly before he left for vacation in South Carolina and lasted about 40 minutes.
Leavy said: "Both presidents agreed that despite differences over Iraq, it was important to continue to build the U.S.-Russian relationship and to move the important common agenda forward in 1999."
It was the first time the two leaders had talked since the U.S. and British missile attacks against Iraq December 17 through 20. Clinton visited Moscow in September and had reportedly last spoken to Yeltsin on the telephone in October about the conflict in Kosovo.
The Russian government strongly criticized the attacks against Iraq, saying the use of force was not justified. In response, Russia temporarily recalled its ambassadors from Washington and London.
Earlier Wednesday, Yeltsin sent New Year's greetings to Clinton which included critical remarks about U.S.-led air raids on Iraq. According to the Kremlin, Yeltsin said using force to solve international crises is "unacceptable and not possible."
Leavy said that during the phone conversation, Yeltsin "stated his views" and insisted on a diplomatic solution. Leavy said Clinton explained why force was necessary and how important it was that Iraq comply with U.N. demands.
Leavy said Yeltsin did not specifically mention the skirmishes Monday and Wednesday in which Iraqis fired missiles at U.S. and British planes patrolling no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq. But Leavy said that Clinton made clear that allied air crews would take all "necessary precautions to protect themselves and carry out their mission."
Leavy said "both presidents agreed that despite differences over Iraq, it was important to continue to build the U.S.-Russia relationship and to tackle the many common problems they have."
Leavy insisted that most of the telephone conversation was about items other than Iraq. He said the presidents discussed a bilateral agenda for next year and upcoming high-level meetings.
Those meetings include U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's scheduled visit to Moscow January 25 to 27, and the planned Moscow meeting of U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov in March.
According to Leavy, Yeltsin told Clinton he still hoped for Russian ratification of the START-II nuclear arms reduction accord, which needs the Russian Duma's approval before it can go into effect. The U.S. Senate has already ratified the treaty. Yelstin said it was in Russia's national interest to see the treaty ratified, Leavy added.
Clinton also congratulated Yeltsin on the Russian president's New Year's address to the nation, which the White House says confirms Russia's desire to pursue economic and democratic reforms. Clinton also extended warm wishes to the Russian people for the New Year.
Leavy said that Clinton thought Yeltsin, who has recently been in and out of hospitals with various ailments, sounded strong and healthy. "It's good to hear that you're sounding so well," Clinton told him.