U.S. President Bill Clinton said he believes America "can do business" with acting Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite disagreements on such issues as the Chechen conflict.
Clinton made the assessment in an interview with the U.S. cable television network CNN to a question submitted via e-mail and relayed to him at the White House by a television interviewer. It was the first time an American president has given an internet-based interview with the questions posed by ordinary people and not by professional journalists.
Clinton was asked how can he be sure whether the United States is really at peace with Russia. He replied:
"We are neither fighting with them nor on the edge of fighting. We detargeted our nuclear weapons against each other. We are working to secure the nuclear weapons in Russia, to help them destroy nuclear weapons, to help safeguard the materials that remain. And I hope very much that after the next Russian election we'll be able to make further progress on reducing the nuclear weapons that we both hold."
Clinton was referring to the March presidential elections in Russia that will pit acting President Vladimir Putin against other candidates. Putin took over as acting president after President Boris Yeltsin resigned on December 31, 1999, and is considered to be the front-runner in the race.
Clinton was asked whether the U.S. can work with Putin. Echoing former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's famous initial assessment of then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Clinton answered the question this way:
"Based on what I have seen so far, I think that the United States can do business with this man. I think he is obviously highly intelligent, he is highly motivated, he has strong views. We don't agree with him on everything. But what I have seen of him so far indicates to me that he is capable of being a very strong and effective and straightforward leader."
Clinton was more critical, however, about the Russian military offensive against Chechnya, a breakaway republic.
He said Russia made a mistake in ruling out negotiations with Chechen officials and adopting tactics that have caused high civilian casualties.
He said the U.S. has spoken out against what he called excesses in Chechnya and tried to give humanitarian aid to the Chechens and will continue to try to help the people of Chechnya and the legitimate political forces there.