Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin bluntly reminded President Clinton on Thursday that Moscow has a vast nuclear arsenal and railed at the U.S. leader for trying to meddle in Russia's internal affairs.
"Yesterday, Clinton took the liberty of putting pressure on Russia," Yeltsin said during a visit to Beijing. "He obviously must have forgotten for a few seconds, a minute or half a minute, what Russia is and that Russia possesses a full arsenal of nuclear weapons. He's forgotten it, and that's why he's decided to flex his muscles, as they say."
In recent days, Clinton and European leaders have criticized Russia's war in the separatist republic of Chechnya, particularly condemning a warning by the Russian military that as many as 40,000 civilians could face death by bombing if they do not leave Grozny, the Chechen capital, by Saturday.
Yeltsin's outburst came during a two-day trip to Beijing to win support for the war from Chinese President Jiang Zemin--and to present a united front against what both Russia and China see as an unhealthy balance of global power in America's favor. It was a harsh public attack on the U.S. president he called his "friend" only a few months ago.
"I want to tell Clinton through you that he shouldn't forget the world he's living in," Yeltsin told select reporters attending a meeting between himself and Li Peng, chairman of China's legislature. "It's never been the case, and it will never be the case, that he can dictate how the whole world should live, work and play. No! And once again, no!"
Yeltsin's performance was reminiscent of Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev's 1956 harangue about the West in which he said, "We will bury you!"
Yeltsin, known for making unpredictable comments during his trips abroad, delivered Thursday's short speech slowly, clearly and without notes. The remarks came one day after the often ailing president became befuddled during a speech in Moscow and had to be told by an aide that he had reached the end.
The attack on Clinton was not broadcast on Chinese news programs and appeared intended primarily for Russia's domestic audience. With nine days left before parliamentary elections, Yeltsin has engaged in a campaign of anti-Western rhetoric. While he remains wildly unpopular at home, his strong words could give a boost to Kremlin allies seeking to increase their share of seats in the lower house of parliament, the Duma.
When asked about Yeltsin's comments, Clinton said he is aware of Russia's role in the world and its military strength--indeed, although Russia has suffered many setbacks since the collapse of the Soviet Union, no U.S. official has ever suggested that its nuclear arsenal is not in working order.
"I haven't forgotten that," Clinton said in Washington. "You know, I didn't think he'd forgotten that America was a great power when he disagreed with what I did in Kosovo."
He continued: "Let's not talk about what the leaders are saying and all these words of criticism. Let's focus on what the country is doing. Is it right or wrong? Will it work or not? What are the consequences?"
In Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin sought to play peacemaker. Russia maintains very good relations with the United States, he said, and Clinton's criticism of Moscow's actions in Chechnya "was motivated by the wish to save Russia additional problems."
"I would consider it absolutely incorrect to produce the impression that some kind of period of cooling off of relations between Russia and the United States has begun or is beginning," the prime minister said.
Putin said leaflets dropped by warplanes onto Grozny warning residents to evacuate the city were not meant as a threat but were motivated by concern for civilians' safety. "There was no ultimatum but only a warning to the civilians asking them to leave Grozny," he said. "It was dictated by concern for their lives."
On his arrival in Beijing after an overnight flight, a slow-moving yet animated Yeltsin exchanged bear hugs with Jiang before getting down to informal talks with the Chinese president, Li and Premier Zhu Rongji at the Diaoyutai State Guest House.
Later, Yeltsin and Jiang looked on as their foreign ministers signed accords settling old border disagreements, including a dispute over islands in the Amur River, where Chinese and Russian troops skirmished briefly in 1969.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov said "relations between Russia and China have risen to their highest level in the past 50 years." China's leaders, he added, "completely understood and fully supported" Russia's actions in fighting what he called terrorism and extremism in Chechnya.
In Helsinki, meanwhile, the Finnish hosts of a European Union summit that opens today moved the Chechnya issue to the top of the agenda as the deadline for the evacuation of Grozny approached.
Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen told one national newspaper that the 15-member body will weigh financial as well as political sanctions to pressure Russia to abandon its assault on the republic, where more than 240,000 civilians have been driven from their homes.
"Our aim is to pressure Russia toward a political solution and to alleviate the humanitarian situation," said Alec Aalto, Lipponen's chief advisor for EU affairs. As soon as the summit opens, he said, aides will begin drafting a collective declaration for discussion by the heads of state and government at their working lunch.
Times staff writer Paddock reported from Moscow and special correspondent Kuhn from Beijing. Times staff writers Carol J. Williams in Helsinki and James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.