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NEWS ANALYSIS : Growing Chill Pervades Ties With Moscow


MOSCOW — Along with the corpses of fallen soldiers and civilians from the bloody 12-week-old conflict in breakaway Chechnya, Russians have begun burying hopes for a post-Cold War partnership with the United States.

Relations between the erstwhile rivals have recovered much of their Communist-era chill after President Boris N. Yeltsin's refusal to extract Russian forces from the Chechnya quagmire, Moscow's indifference to American objections to a proposed sale of nuclear technology to Iran and President Clinton's apparent intention to snub a Russian commemoration of the Allied victory in World War II.

"Russians' feelings are becoming strongly anti-Western and anti-American," warned Alexander A. Konovalov, a political analyst with the USA-Canada Institute, citing the recent points of contention as evidence that the East-West rapprochement is over.

He described the consequences for international stability as wide-ranging, and he singled out the likelihood of resurgent disputes over arms control as "especially dangerous."

Clinton has not yet announced if he will accept the Kremlin's invitation to May 8 events marking the 50th anniversary of the Nazi defeat.

But White House officials have signaled that a summit, as part of those ceremonies, is highly unlikely as long as Russian troops are bludgeoning rebel Chechnya.

The hint of a boycott may have been intended as an expression of disapproval over the armed conflict and a way to put pressure on Yeltsin to wrap up the bungled crackdown, which has arguably inflicted as much damage on the Russian side as on the rebels.

But the attempt to hold a high-profile visit hostage to radical change in Russia's handling of its own military and economic affairs has backfired, badly.

Rather than Yeltsin having been compelled to end the Chechnya blood bath or scrap the $1-billion deal to supply Iran with a nuclear energy complex, even reform-minded democrats have dug in their heels against what is seen here as Washington's meddling.

Nationalist demagogues are using the failing partnership as testimony to the folly of trying to get fair treatment from the West.

In his State of the Federation address on Russian television two weeks ago, Yeltsin staunchly defended the military crackdown on Chechnya, which has taken thousands of civilian lives and cast the Russian army as brutal and inept.

"We made it clear to the Russians that we would be looking to Yeltsin's speech for a commitment to resolving Chechnya politically," a Western diplomat said. "We said, 'Give us some kind of sign, some sign of regret for the tremendous loss of life, some sign of wanting to end this through negotiations.' Nowhere in the speech did we see anything like this."

It was just after the speech that Washington suggested Clinton was holding up his visit, still waiting for that same sign from Yeltsin that the Chechnya debacle is over.

Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev on Wednesday reiterated his vow to capture the last rebel strongholds in Chechnya, flaunting Kremlin disdain for U.S. concerns on the conflict.

Meantime, Vyacheslav Kostikov, Yeltsin's spokesman, warned that the absence of any of the World War II victors from the May 8 celebrations here "will be noticed" in official circles as well as among a population that considers the defeat of fascism its greatest 20th-Century achievement.

Sergei Markov, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center, warned that Russians are likely to be gravely insulted if Clinton fails to take part.

"This will be regarded here as a new effort at isolation," Markov said of the threatened American presidential no-show. "Especially if Clinton visits England or France (to note the anniversary), people here will say, 'See, he's trying to seize our victory.' The propaganda from conservatives will increase, and the liberals will continue to lose influence."

Konovalov, of the USA-Canada Institute, agreed that the escalating disputes are playing into the hands of reactionaries who are stirring up an insecure public with claims that the United States is exploiting Russia's current weakness to relegate it to a subservient role.

He said he will advise Clinton to make the May trip to avoid having his absence used to fuel the conservative backlash, but he deemed it probably too little and too late to arrest the relationship crisis.

The analysts predicted increasing difficulties and tensions as leaders of both countries are under pressure to take a tougher stance against the other.

Conservative Republicans holding sway in the new U.S. Congress have threatened to cut aid to Russia if it follows through on its agreement to supply Tehran with a nuclear power plant and the technology and training to operate it.

"It would be terrible and self-defeating if, as a result of such sales to Iran, the U.S. Congress cut off funds to be used for dismantling nuclear weapons" in the former Soviet Union, added Andrew Pierre, another Carnegie analyst, on a visit here from Washington.

Times staff writer Doyle McManus in Washington contributed to this report.

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