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Russia: Clinton Says, Little That U.S. Can Do On Chechnya

U.S. President Bill Clinton held a wide-ranging news conference at the U.S. State Department yesterday, during which he announced agreement on the resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace talks next week in Washington. But on another contentious foreign policy matter -- Russia's ongoing military campaign in breakaway Chechnya, RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams reports the president said there was likely little left the U.S. could do to bring a halt to the conflict.

Washington, 9 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- It was a red-carpet roll-out for what was billed as U.S. President Bill Clinton's final open press conference of the year, which was held yesterday (Wednesday) at the State Department.

RFE/RL's correspondent reports it was perhaps fitting then that while the president took a great deal of domestic policy questions -- ranging from race, to gun control, to health care -- he was questioned most diligently about Russia's ongoing military campaign in Chechnya.

Specifically, the president was asked if he was considering taking any action in advance of this Saturday's Russian deadline, which urged all civilians in the Chechen capital, Grozny, to leave, lest they be considered "terrorists."

Up until 24 hours ago, Russian Generals had stated they planned to smash Grozny into submission. However, since the Russian ultimatum was delivered, there has been a chorus of negative criticism from the West, leading some officials in Russia to appear to back down from previous hard-line statements.

Clinton yesterday reiterated his concern for the civilians of Chechnya, whom he said should not be punished for the actions of separatist Islamic rebels. At the same time, Clinton said he was not sure what else he could do.

The president was more assertive in his view that the imposition of international sanctions against Russia -- as some have suggested -- is not the right course:

"A sanctions regime has to be imposed by the United Nations, and Russia has a veto there. But I am not sure that would be in our interests, or in the interests of the ultimate resolution of the crisis."

Clinton told reporters that two-thirds of U.S. aid to Russia went for programs to safeguard Russia's nuclear materials, while the remaining one-third was aimed at building democracy in Russia. As such, Clinton said U.S. interests would not be furthered in terminating that aid.

But Clinton did leave open the possibility of withholding U.S. support for international Monetary Fund (IMF) loans to Russia to raise pressure for a political settlement over Chechnya. He also noted that as of now there is no pending IMF transfer because of the general opinion by the IMF that not all the economic conditions have been met.

The president also reiterated his view that Russia was and would continue to pay a "heavy price" for its campaign in Chechnya:

"I think Russia is already paying a heavy price. I think they'll pay a heavy price in two ways. First of all, I don't think the strategy will work. Secondly, the continuation of it and the amassing of hundreds of thousands of refugees which will have to be cared for by the international community -- we've already set aside, I think, at least $ 10 million to try to make our contributions for it -- will further alienate the global community from Russia. And that's a bad thing because they need support, not just from the IMF and the World Bank; they need investors, they need people to have confidence in what they're doing."

Clinton, who appeared somber throughout much of the news conference, concluded his remarks on Chechnya by saying that most of life's greatest wounds for individuals or countries are "self-inflicted." And he said he believed that too would be the case for Russia, unless they take immediate steps to move away from forcing a military solution to the Chechen conflict.