Istanbul Marks Low Point in Russia-U.S. Relations

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Boris Yeltsin came out swinging, and found Bill Clinton ready to rumble. The West has no right to criticize Russia over its campaign in Chechnya, the Russian heavyweight told Clinton at a European security summit in Turkey Thursday. "We do not accept the advice of the so-called objective critics of Russia," he thundered at his American counterpart, going below the belt on the "horrible results" of NATO's Kosovo intervention. President Clinton responded with punishing jabs about Moscow's campaign actually increasing the risk of terrorism, and rocked Yeltsin with a flat rejection of his insistence that Chechnya is a purely internal matter. After a public toe-to-toe unprecedented since the worst days of the Cold War, the two leaders took it inside, going behind closed doors for a scheduled bilateral meeting. The conflict was a sign of how far the relationship between Washington and post-communist Moscow had deteriorated. "For Moscow, Western criticism has made Chechnya more than simply a war against terrorism," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "It's taken on the subtext of an anti-NATO campaign, and the more the West complains the more Russia's generals will dig in their heels."

The Russians also plan to go on the offensive at the Istanbul summit. "Moscow will go on the attack over U.S. efforts to renegotiate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty," says Meier. "They'll put their own issues on the table even before the West raises Chechnya." As if to underline the new bellicose mood in Moscow, a Russian nuclear submarine Wednesday test-fired two ballistic missiles — the third Russian missile test in a month. Chechnya, though, threatens to derail one of the fundamental purpose of the Istanbul summit, which is the adoption of a treaty among former Cold War adversaries limiting the concentration of conventional military forces in any one region. Russia is currently way over that limit in Chechnya, and adopting a treaty would make no sense unless Moscow pledges to reduce its force levels there. But for Yeltsin's generals, that would be throwing in the towel.