The White House warned Russia on Thursday that, if the conflict in Chechnya continues, President Clinton may refuse to attend a long-planned Moscow commemoration of the Allied victory in World War II.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said the May 8 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the victory "may or may not be the optimum time for a summit. . . . A future date might be more helpful."
Senior officials said his statement was a warning to the Russians that their failure to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict in Chechnya, as the United States and its allies have demanded, will have a serious effect on the U.S.-Russian relationship.
Failure by Clinton to attend the long-planned ceremonies would be a keenly felt snub to the Russians, who venerate their four-year struggle against Nazi Germany--in which as many as 20 million Soviet citizens died--as the "Great Patriotic War."
State Department officials said they hope that the President can still go and noted that some quiet planning for the trip has already begun.
But McCurry said no decision has been made, and he added that whether Clinton attends the Moscow ceremonies will depend on several issues.
"It's a matter of scheduling. It's a matter of what is the status of the bilateral relationship," he said. "Taking full advantage of the many possibilities . . . in this relationship is easier if an impediment like the conflict in Chechnya is successfully resolved."
In repeated appeals culminating in a personal telephone call this week, Clinton has urged Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the rebels in Chechnya, the breakaway Muslim area in southern Russia.
But Yeltsin has refused to negotiate and has ordered military action to continue.
McCurry offered a careful measure of praise for Yeltsin's speech Thursday in which the Russian president admitted that his army had made errors in Chechnya.
"It was an important acknowledgment by President Yeltsin," the White House spokesman said. "The important question now . . . is what specific actions will follow."
Asked whether the United States accepted Yeltsin's explanation of the need for military action in Chechnya, McCurry was noncommittal.
"Whether that is satisfactory or not is largely a judgment that the Russian people will have to make," he said.