Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official

Office of the Press Secretary
(Oslo, Norway)

For Immediate Release November 2, 1999


Radisson SAS Plaza Hotel
Oslo, Norway

6:15 P.M. (L)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just say a few things about the President's meeting with Prime Minister Putin. This was the second meeting that the two of them had together. They previously met in Auckland. I would say that it was a serious meeting and it was a frank meeting. It was a useful discussion, consistent with what we've been doing in the past. We've been engaging Russia at times where there have been difficult issues in the relationship, and obviously, there are some difficult issues now where there are differences such as in Chechnya, such as the need to bring to a conclusion an adaptation of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, some issues on arms control. And as we have in the past, what we found is that when we engage and work through these problems, that that's the most constructive way to come up with effective solutions.

Let me just say a few points about some specific issues that we talked about. First, on Chechnya, that very much was the dominant issue in the discussion. It revolved around four different points.

The first is a recognition of Russia's territorial integrity, its right to protect its people; on an understanding of the importance of dealing with terrorist threats. That's something that we've consistently said in the past and we, obviously, reaffirmed again.

Secondly, we stressed that we're very concerned that Russia is pursuing a strategy that could entail major and increasing civilian casualties in Chechnya, and we stressed that it's not in the interest of any country, for that matter, to try to resolve internal problems at the price of a major loss of life of innocent people, particularly in a situation like Chechnya where the rebel forces are very much intermingled with the civilian population.

One of the things I think we effectively did, the President effectively did, was to highlight some of the costs that this would entail -- costs in humanitarian terms, costs in terms of making it harder to, in the end, achieve a political solution to the Chechnya conflict, and costs in terms of the damage that this could cause to Russia's international reputation.

The third point was that, for these reasons, for these very costs that we were outlining, we stressed the importance of having a political strategy in order to bring the conflict to a close. President Clinton stressed that it was very clear that what people want is obviously to be able to live a normal life. And in order to satisfy that basic desire, there has to be a situation of peace, and that the only way they were going to get peace is through a political solution that everybody could buy into.

We urged Russia to be proactive in pursuing a political dialogue, either directly, or if it needs to, to seek a third party for discussions, and that without a political strategy, that it could in fact, end up in a worst case situation where it, in fact, sees significant humanitarian losses as well as not achieving an end to the conflict.

The fourth point, on Chechnya, was the importance of dealing with the immediate humanitarian problems. And again, we stressed that it's absolutely crucial to let people get to safety, particularly those people who have been displaced by the conflict.

Prime Minister Putin told us that they have agreed to invite the OSCE on a mission to, Ingushetia, to the northern areas of Chechnya and to Dagestan to review the humanitarian situation. That's an important first step to, in fact, possibly get the humanitarian situation under control.

Obviously, we have stressed the importance of opening borders and allowing people to be able to get to safe and secure situations where they can receive humanitarian aid.

The second issue that we discussed was the CFE Treaty, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. We stressed from the outset that compliance with the treaty is important, and that in order to be able to move forward with the treaty, there needs to be an assurance that the parties will eventually come into compliance. Russia has declared, and everybody knows that, currently that they have exceeded the CFE levels and the flank area as a result of the operations in the North Caucasus area.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Putin indicated, made a statement that Russia intends to comply with these levels. He also committed himself, committed Russia to be transparent about the force levels in the North Caucasus. Those are important steps.

In addition to those, one of the things that we stressed was the need to reach agreements between Russia and Moldova and Russia and Georgia on Russian withdrawal from those territories. The CFE Treaty provides for host government consent for the stationing of foreign forces on their territory, and as part of that, one of the things that both Moldova and Georgia have indicated is that they want to negotiate withdrawal schedules, Russian troops, and that we expect there to be a serious dialogue on these issues. Both Moldova and Georgia have made serious proposals which the Russians are seeking to address.

On arms control, Prime Minister Putin provided President Clinton with the signed copy of a letter that President Yeltsin had sent on arms control issues, which I understand has generally or broadly met its way around already. President Clinton acknowledged that we obviously have some differences on arms control issues, but it's important to continue work.

He said that what we are dealing with here is a common threat, a threat that affects both the United States and Russia and is from rogue states. And from that perspective, our work on a limited national defense is not directed against Russia, but in fact, against a threat that can affect both of our countries. And from that perspective, it's in our interest to be able to share in security benefits that are developed from work on a missile defense system.

We've made a number of suggestions to the Russians on the kind of cooperation that we might be willing to consider. We think that they're serious proposals. We've already had a number of meetings with the Russians on these issues. While on one hand, there have been some strong statements in the press by Russia about their differences and disagreement with an ABM system, at the same time, there's also been serious dialogue, and it's important to continue that dialogue, and that's one of the things that the President underscored.

Let me stop there. That was sort of the core elements of the meeting, and I'm glad to answer whatever questions --

Q Did the letter from Yeltsin surprise you in its tone or its warnings of dangers, the treaty collapsing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Not really. It's a serious letter, and President Clinton said that we would respond to it in a serious way. There are parts of it that are quite familiar. First of all, the letter emphasizes the importance of continuing a dialogue on reduction of nuclear arsenals, and we, in fact, have agreed with that, and in the statement that President Clinton, President Yeltsin issued in Cologne, they said -- they both said that we should continue parallel discussions in START III and on the ABM Treaty.

The Russians have, in the past, indicated to us a concern that an ABM system can somehow affect or mitigate the deterrent fact of the strategic forces. We have consistently said that we don't believe that's the case, because we're looking at a limited system that, in fact, no decisions have been made at this point, but we are looking at a limited system that's not directed at Russia.

In fact, some of Russia's own generals have indicated that the kind of limited system that we're looking at is not directed against Russian strategic forces. And what we have consistently said is that we want to work with the Russians on ways to address issues specific to the treaty to strengthen the treaty, and that from our perspective, if we look ahead to the future and we assess potential security threats for the future, it's important for us to begin thinking now how to respond to those, and in fact, last -- in September of '98 at the Moscow summit, the two Presidents actually issued a joint statement on security challenges for the 12st century, which reinforced the importance of looking ahead to the future. And I think it's in that context that we're going to continue its dialogue.

Q Did the President say anything to the Prime Minister about what steps the United States was willing to take, either through positive or negative reinforcement to convince the Russians that the military option in Chechnya is not the wise course to pursue?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me put it this way. Russia is dealing with a situation in Chechnya which it considers fundamental to its territorial integrity and national security. And Russia is going to take actions in that situation that are consistent with its own assessment of its security interests. So, from our perspective, the most important arguments and the most effective arguments that we think that we can marshal with the Russians on the question is whether or not the strategy that they're pursuing is one that is likely to achieve the national security ends that they have.

Now, for that reason, one of the things that the President has continually underscored is that if there are major civilian casualties, that that is something that is potentially going to turn civilians against a dialogue with the government, that it's going to make it harder to achieve a solution, that it's potentially going to, in fact, going to be inconsistent with what Russia said it wants to achieve, which is a normalization of the situation there and potentially a continuation of a conflict over time, whether through hit-and-run tactics or other tactics.

And so, what we have continually stressed is, number one, look at the civilian casualties; number two, get a political dialogue going because political dialogue is going to be absolutely fundamental to achieving a solution; and number three, address the immediate humanitarian crisis because this is something that is directly in Russia's control right now.

Q Was there an "or else we might" in there somewhere?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, there was not and "or else we might," but I thing it's important to look at that in the context of the overall relationship, which is we have a relationship with Russia as with any other country where we're pursuing things that are in our own interest, so we're pursuing a discussion on arms control because it's in our interest; we're pursuing a discussion on economics issues because we want to see Russia change, internally and economically, and that's in our interest. We're pursuing a discussion on non-proliferation because it's in our interest to see a control over sensitive technologies.

And so what we're trying to do is recognize that there are a whole series of issues in the Russia relationship that are difficult and hard questions, and we need to pursue them, recognizing that there may be interlinkages among them, but that also each one of them has an end that we want to achieve and we need to keep on pursuing that.

Q Did the President even present it to Mr. Putin in a way that there may be multilateral arrangements where world public opinion could be undermined if the Chechnya situation continued? Was there any kind of argument along those lines, setting aside the bilateral relationship?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, and excuse me if I wasn't clear enough about that. The President made very clear that if there is a significant increase in civilian casualties, that not only is that going to have an immediate humanitarian costs that Russia should be concerned about, it's going to affect Russia's international reputation, which it's been working very hard to try to restore.

I would also say that I think it's very clear in the Russians minds that they recognize that the upcoming summit in Istanbul is -- it's an OSC summit; it's focused on issues of how states interrelate with one another, but also how states treat their own people; that if the conflict is, in fact, continuing to escalate and there are humanitarian casualties, that there's going to be a tremendous amount of international scrutiny.

And it's partly in that context I think that Russia is so avidly trying to respond and address some of the questions that are being put forward to it. Now, I think one of the key questions is to move from that recognition that Russia, I think, has increasingly developed to try to get actions on the ground that address the humanitarian crisis and bring us closer -- bring the Russians closer to a political solution.

Q Did the President bring up that summit as a venue where this could come up, where the Russians have indicated to us in other forums their concern that that could come up --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It came up in the discussion recognizing that the Istanbul summit is somewhere where this kind of issue could very well come up.

Q Did the President use the phrase "indiscriminate attack against civilians." which has been used at this podium yesterday? I didn't hear it in your briefing. And secondly, what kind of conflict is this? The Russians portray this as a police action against terrorists. It seems like there is about 40,000 troops involved, so some would call it an internal armed conflict. How do you regard it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't think that the President specifically used the term "indiscriminate attacks." It's been used in other discussions. What was clear in the President's discussion was that in a situation where civilians and these rebel forces are, indeed, very much intermingled, that addressing that conflict through intensive shelling can result in significant humanitarian casualties, and that, indeed, where the rebel camps have very much dispersed and there is no specific rebel infrastructure, that it becomes extremely difficult to pinpoint any specific attack. And so, from that perspective, it's particularly important to be sensitive to the potential humanitarian impacts of the intensification of both the air strikes and the shelling which the Russians have announced as being part of their current strategy.

Q My other question is about what type of conflict is this? Is this just a police action against terrorists?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think when you recognize that there have been significant attacks against lawful authorities in Russia, that rebels began attacks in Dagestan, at the same time we have an extremely complex situation where you have a significant number of rebels -- I don't think any of us know what the numbers are -- the Russians have used the numbers in the tens of thousands -- and there is not one particular group -- they're not individuals that can be isolated specifically, and they're very much interspersed and intermingled with the civilian population. And in that context, it becomes much more difficult to know how to specifically get at those rebels without having major humanitarian casualties.

And it further reaffirms, it further underscores the need to actually pursue a political dialogue because there is no obvious military solution that one can achieve without major costs, human life costs also being entailed.

Q How long did the meeting last?


Q What kind of measure has the President gotten of Prime Minister Putin after two meetings now? How would you describe him as a leader, as a negotiating partner, and as a power within Russia?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would say that it's very clear in any discussion with him that he is extremely serious, that he is engaged in the details of the situation that he's occupied with. He is extremely involved in the situation in Chechnya and has been looking at all aspects of the strategy of what Russia has been doing from, I think, the broader strategic to the tactical. And he suggests that he's very much in command of that situation. There was -- well, let me just leave it there.

Q How do you expect the CFE agreement to be handled in Istanbul? Do you expect them to come to an agreement, to resolve this difference, or do you think it's going to still be left hanging?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First of all, to put in context, I would say that there has been, in fact, a lot of progress already made toward adapting a CFE treaty. And last March there was a joint statement issued in Vienna that set out the basic parameters for the adapted treaty. And many of the key issues were hammered out already at that point.

Some of the outdated elements of the treaty -- particularly its division into two blocks -- some of the provisions on reduction of levels were already addressed at that point, and that's particularly important to keep in mind.

There still are those other questions which I mentioned, which are very important in the overall scope of the treaty. I think they are certainly doable and resolvable, but it's going to take the parties involved, particularly the Russians and Moldovans, the Russians and the Georgians, sitting down at a table and working through their differences, particularly on withdrawal schedules for Russian forces.

Q Do you expect it to be done in Istanbul or not?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The negotiators are still working. We would like it to be done, but it will be done when we have a good treaty.

Q On ABM, does Russia have reason to believe that the United States would deploy a new missile defense system without a renegotiated treaty?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We've consistently said that we want to be able to address issues of missile defense in a way that's cooperative and transparent, and that we want to do that through a parallel discussion on nuclear reductions and requirements for missile defense.

We have consistently stressed the importance of having transparency measures in any form of agreement on adaptation of the ABM Treaty. The importance of that is, particularly, to address Russians' concerns about a breakout capacity. And so what we have consistently focused on is how to do this in a cooperative way, how to do it in a way that maintains strategic stability and recognizing that what we're trying to do is not negate the Russians' strategic deterrence, but to address a different threat and maintain at the same time a balance in strategic stability.

Q Could you elaborate on the contents of the Yeltsin letter, the main points that you saw?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The contents were very much as I laid out; a desire to continue discussions on nuclear arms reductions, which is not something new. We have, in fact, shared that view and indicated that it should move ahead jointly with discussions on missile defense. The letter indicated a concern that the ABM Treaty could somehow affect Russia's strategic deterrent, and as I indicated before, it's not our perspective that that will be the case.

The letter indicated a concern that amendments to the ABM Treaty could weaken the treaty. Our perspective has been that, in fact, a strong treaty is one that addresses changes in a changing international security situations, and in Cologne when the two Presidents issued a statement on arms control, it recognized that the ABM Treaty has provisions for amendment for changing international security environments.

The letter indicated that we should address questions of threats from rogue states by cooperation on export control and control of ballistic missile technology. We agree with that fully. The concern that, of course, we've had is that the countries that may actually get this technology are not necessarily operating on the basis of a rational basis of what kind of impact a strike against the United States might have, and therefore it's important to maintain a defense against such strikes.

The letter indicated that it hoped -- President Yeltsin hoped that the United States would work with Russia on a resolution that they are introducing at the United Nations, and we indicated to them that in fact, if such a resolution is based on the principles that both countries have accepted in the past -- in particular, the principles that are embodied in the Cologne statement issued by the two Presidents that that's something that we could discuss.

Q The Prime Minister said that he was willing to have the OSCE come in and have a look at the humanitarian situation in connection with Chechnya. Was there any thought about having the OSCE involved as a mediator or trying to get a political solution started?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that's a good question for the Russians to answer.

Q Did the President ask them?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What we suggested to them, as I said before, was that they need to get a dialogue going, they need to be proactive, they need to be creative about it. If they can't do it directly, they should think about third parties. If this is a third party the Russians think they could work with, then that's good; if it's not, then there are other things that they might consider. And we hope that they do.

Q Is it not true that the National Security Advisor already raise that scenario with Mr. Putin and was rebuffed?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The National Security Advisor was very clear in his conversations with Prime Minister Putin about the importance of a political dialogue. Each time we've had this discussion, I think we've continued to look at different ways that we can advance it. I think that we were clearer today about the importance of seeking creative solutions and potentially looking at third parties, if that is a useful alternative, than we have been in the past.

Q Again, but the heart of the question -- is it not true that the National Security Advisor suggested that to Prime Minister Putin, and Prime Minister Putin said no thank you -- or words to that effect?


Q Did the President raise the question of the plight of the refugees --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just say certainly not that I'm aware of. I mean, Sandy may have said something and I wasn't aware of it, but not that I'm aware of.

Q Did the President raise the plight of the refugees -- the hundreds of thousands who are trying to get out -- with Putin? Because the Russians apparently are still blocking the borders.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, we have raised that, and it was in that context that Prime Minister Putin said that they recognize that there needs to be quick action to address the humanitarian situation and that he also raised the OSCE mission to look at the humanitarian situation.

Obviously, the answer, or the solution here is to open the border, and that's what we're going to look at.

Q Did the President raise them today?


Q Where did Putin say that the OSCE could go? Could they go into and all around Chechnya or just in the neighboring countries?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He had said Dagestan, areas in Northern Chechnya, and Ingushetia.

Q What was the restriction --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Because of the security situation -- their answer was because of the security situation and a concern that people may be taken hostage, as has happened on other occasions.

Q Other than talking about the OSCE mission, did the Prime Minister respond in some way to the logic that you laid out about the desirability of a military solution and so forth? And what was his general answer to those arguments?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's a good question. Let me sort of summarize what some of the key pieces of his response were. One is a recognition that the desperate economic situation in Chechnya was one that, in fact, has made the situation even more difficult, and has increased the prospect for unrest there, and that implicit in that, being that you need to deal with the long-term economic situation and to, in fact, actually be able to resolve the problem.

Second, very strong view on his part that this is a conflict that was initiated by the rebels because of their attack into Dagestan. Third, a view on his part that there has to be a strong response against the terrorists, and fourth, he did agree that the way to resolve the problem is going to have to be through some form of political dialogue.

The question, I think, that where we still have some differences, how do they get to that political dialogue, are they being proactive about it, how quickly are they going to get to it. Those are questions that the Russians are going to have to answer for themselves, and from our perspective, the quicker that they can move on this, the better it's going to be.

Q Who do you think would be the third party in that political dialogue?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We didn't specify. That's going to be something they're going to have to make some judgment about.

Q -- thinking about.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are a number of different parties out there. Obviously, the question of the OSCE was raised before. There are individuals within Russia that could be turned to. There are other international parties. I think the key question right now is for Russia to make a decision that either such a third party dialogue or a direct dialogue is going to be something that they're going to pursue, because there is a need for an effective political strategy that brings the conflict to an end.

Q I just want to know one thing. Is the United States suggesting, then, that Russia negotiate with -- the known leaders of the armed Chechen opposition? Because Putin said himself at his news conference last night, that he is -- Russia is ready to open political talks with political authorities in Chechnya, but they won't talk to the leaders of the armed resistance. Is the United States suggesting that they do?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, we're not suggesting that the Russian government enter into a dialogue or a discussion with Basayev. They're going to have to make judgments about what representatives of the Chechen people they may be able to work with. They have given different signals at different times of who those people may be.

For example, Chechen President Maskhadov is one person who, at one point, they indicated they might have a discussion with. Later, Putin indicated that they could not. Just in the last day or two, the Minister of Regions -- I forgot what his exact title is -- indicated that, in fact, that Maskhadov was a legally elected President of Chechnya, and that if he renounced terrorism, that he may be somebody that they could talk with.

Those are the kinds of questions that they're going to have to work through and decide who our credible partners on the other side that they're willing to talk to.

Q Did Prime Minister Putin suggest when the mission might be allowed in?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know the answer to that question, sorry. All right. Sorry. You've been patient.

Q You may regret this if you will answer this. Just standing back, what would you see the difference in argument between Serbia's view that was protecting the territorial integrity of what remains of the former Yugoslavia, and Russia protecting the territory integrity of Russia?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would say that they're extremely different situations and that I wouldn't go into a comparison between the two. What I think is clear in the situation in Chechnya is that in order to bring an end to the conflict in an extremely complex situation where the rebels are very much intermixed with the civilian population, that it is important for the Russian government to look at a proactive political dialogue that can address some of the core issues that led to the conflict to begin with, and that that political dialogue has to be the absolute foundation for a successful solution because we don't see how a military solution is going to work in this situation.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 6:50 P.M. (L)

Fact Sheets/Briefings

President Clinton to Visit Oslo, Norway

Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official on Trilateral Meeting

Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official

Press Briefing by Joe Lockhart

Background Briefing on President Clinton's Meetings with Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat

Background Briefing on Trip to Oslo, Norway

President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore
Record of Progress | The Briefing Room
Gateway to Government | Contacting the White House | White House for Kids
White House History | White House Tours | Help
Privacy Statement


Site Map

Graphic Version

T H E   W H I T E   H O U S E