MOSCOW — Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin firmly backed Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin as his successor Sunday, effectively endorsing the relentless war against the separatist republic of Chechnya and signaling that the Kremlin has no intention of bowing to Western criticism of the conflict.
Dwarfing the dour, diminutive prime minister, Yeltsin clasped him by the arm as the two emerged from an hourlong meeting and said he is increasingly confident that Putin is the right man to lead Russia.
Looking energetic and clad in a sweater and open-necked shirt, Yeltsin resurfaced after more than a two-week absence from the Kremlin for the meeting with Putin at the president's residence outside Moscow.
"Look at his actions; analyze his deeds. How logical, wise and strong they are!" Yeltsin said. "From the point of view of intellect, willpower, analytical abilities--everything."
Just four days before a summit in Turkey of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, at which Western leaders are expected to exert strong pressure on Russia over Chechnya, the president's backing of Putin sent out clear signals that Moscow will not back down in its war to force the republic back under Russian control. U.S. and European concern focuses on the high civilian casualties and on Russia's massive and indiscriminate attacks on population centers.
The sharp-faced Putin, who spent most of his career in the KGB, was a shadowy, little-known figure when Yeltsin named him heir apparent in early August and appointed him prime minister. Because of his tough stance against Chechnya, he is now the country's most popular politician.
Indeed, Putin's one notable policy in the months since August has been the war in Chechnya.
On Sunday, claiming credit for having been correct in naming his preferred successor, Yeltsin said that Putin, as president, would lead Russia forward.
"With each day, I am more and more convinced that this is the only solution for Russia, the most acceptable one," Yeltsin said.
After Yeltsin initially anointed Putin, the prime minister's position as heir apparent was later thrown into doubt when Kremlin spokesman Dmitri D. Yakushkin called into question the very idea of a designated successor.
But after recent speculation that Yeltsin was about to fire Putin, Yeltsin's enthusiastic endorsement Sunday suggested that Putin is safe--at least for now. One reason may be that he has acquired an important power base of his own--the security forces and the military, which are solidly behind a man who has both reignited their sense of pride and promised massive increases in military spending.
Putin won their loyalty with his uncompromising stand on Chechnya, sending Russian forces back into the republic in the North Caucasus to do what they failed to do in a 1994-96 war--defeat the Chechen rebels. When rumors that he might be fired were rife, just over a week ago, several top military commanders reportedly called Yeltsin and threatened to resign if he dismissed Putin.
The Chechen war has seen a rise in anti-Western nationalism here and also some harsh Cold War-style rhetoric from Russian officials. At times, Putin himself seems willing to whip up the nationalist sentiment. He adopted a tough and at times earthy tone in an interview telecast Sunday night, asserting that there are many people in the West who still live in the era of the Cold War, before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
"They proceed from the assumption that anything that is bad for Russia is necessarily good for the West," Putin said. "There are some who are trying to ease us out of the family of civilized nations. There are forces that deliberately want to oust us in order to have all sorts of blocs and alliances formed around Russia."
Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.