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Victories for Clinton fade in fog of words

MOSCOW SUMMIT: Yeltsin refuses to back down over Iran or Chechnya; critics in Congress allege failure to defend US interests
President Bill Clinton left Russia for Ukraine yesterday enveloped in a fog of diplomatic newspeak: delighted that the Kremlin will trim a nuclear deal with Iran and scrap a contract that officials say never existed; committed to a Chechen ceasefire that never halted fighting; and pleased with a Russian pledge to seal a security agreement that it was meant to sign up for six months ago.

After a summit meeting with President Boris Yeltsin on Wednesday and a breakfast yesterday with 10 opposition leaders, Mr Clinton had little to show for a three-day visit to Moscow beyond the absence of a public bust-up with the Kremlin, an earful of warnings about growing anti-American feeling and some moving images of Russia's role in the Second World War.

Moscow remains opposed to the expansion of Nato into Russia's former satellites and shows no sign of halting the war in Chechnya, which, as helicopters rocket villages, Mr Yeltsin insists is over.

"Nobody had any high expectations and it was not the worst possible outcome," said Irina Kobrinskaya, a senior associate of Moscow's Carnegie Centre.

Mr Yeltsin said Russia would join Partnership for Peace, the vague system of co-operation that it was expected to enter last December but from which it backed out at the last minute.

"It does not mean very much. The whole question of Nato is still open," said Sergei Karaganov, a Kremlin adviser and deputy head of the Institute for Europe.

The centrepiece of the summit as presented by White House officials was a promise by Mr Yeltsin not to sell a gas centrifuge plant to Iran, which the US said could be used to develop nuclear weapons. But as President Clinton was preparing to leave Moscow yesterday, Russia's Atomic Energy Minister, Viktor Mikhailov, said Moscow had never concluded such a contract. He said Russia would press on with a contract that it had signed for the provision of nuclear reactors.

"The talks between President Yeltsin and President Clinton will not introduce any changes in the existing contract for the construction of the Russian nuclear power station in Iran," Itar-Tass news agency quoted Mr Mikhailov as saying.

He said 250 Russian specialists were working on the project in Iran and there was no question of recalling them. Iranian officials were quoted by Tass as praising Mr Yeltsin for refusing to give in to US demands.

In the weeks leading up to the summit, it was the reactor deal that the White House wanted scrapped. But, after Russian officials made it clear that the deal, worth around $1bn (£620m), was irreversible, the Clinton administration shifted its attention to the issue of gas centrifuge technology.

"Russia made no real concession at all," Ms Kobrinskaya said. She insisted the centrifuge issue had been invented to prevent Mr Clinton from leaving Moscow empty-handed. "It was very well done. You can't be 100 per cent sure what happened but it shows there are still a few professionals left in our foreign service."

On Chechnya there was not even a token concession. A day after Mr Yeltsin embarrassed a tired-looking Mr Clinton at a joint press conference in the Kremlin by denying that hostilities were continuing in Chechnya, Russia's military commander in the region announced that his troops would "destroy" Chechen rebels as soon as a nominal two-week ceasefire expired at midnight. The supposed truce, Interfax news agency quoted Russian Lieutenant-General Mikhail Yegorov as saying, "brought no positive results from a military point of view".

As Mr Clinton arrived in Kiev yesterday for a less troubled meeting with Ukrainian leaders, Russian troops in Chechnya launched a heavy bombardment of rebel positions in southern Chechnya.

Russian forces, using artillery and rockets, started bombarding the village of Serzhen-Yurt and rebel bases in nearby mountains. Fires could clearly be seen raging in Serzhen-Yurt. A Russian officer said his forces had been ordered to seal the road to the area and armoured personnel carriers were seen thundering south from the bomb-shattered capital of Grozny.

In Kiev, it was announced the US will give Ukraine extra assistance to help complete its destruction of nuclear weapons and proceed with converting defence plants to civilian use.

The key to Russia's future military role in the Caucasus is its demand for a revision of the CFE treaty, fixing limits on conventional weapons across Europe. The terms of the treaty restrict the number of tanks that Russia can station in the region. Despite the fighting in Chechnya, Mr Clinton said he would support "some modifications" in so-called "flank restrictions" that govern the amount of weaponry Russia can station in the Caucasus.

Ms Kobrinskaya said: "This is the first expression of understanding for Russia's position at such a high level and provides a good background for future negotiation."