Russian Official Defends Military Action in Chechnya

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Washington ( - Russia's military action against Chechen rebels is justified, and Moscow is committed to routing the Chechen leadership, a senior Moscow official told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.

"This is not a war against the Chechen people," said Dimitri Yakushin, a senior aide to acting President Vladimir Putin and former press secretary to President Boris Yeltsin. "It is a war against the Chechen leadership, which is criminal."

Chechen rebels have financed arms procurement through narcotics trafficking, the circulation of counterfeit money in Russia, kidnapping, slave trading and draining oil from Russian pipelines running through the Caucasus, Yakushin asserted.

Yakushin said his country's new leadership is willing to work more closely with the United States and the West despite recent disagreements over the handling of the conflict in Kosovo and Chechnya.

Yakushin said Putin does support the Start II arms control agreement with the United States, but didn't offer details. Russia considers itself Western and sees its destiny entwined with the West's and not with China, Yakushin said.

Yakushin described Putin as a pragmatic man without complexes who has made it a priority to establish Russia in the minds of the West as a "predictable and stable country."

Russia will formulate its own positions and defend them vigorously, but there will be "no hawkish statements for the sake of hawkish statements," he said.

Yeltsin, his former boss, made frequent inflammatory statements against the West, particularly during the Kosovo conflict when Russia defended the actions of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whose Serbian forces were the target of NATO attacks.

Yakushin reacted testily to the suggestion that the Russian government wasn't working fast enough to carry out economic reform.

"We are the first to know what is bad in Russia," Yakushin said. "We are the ones who suffer. We don't have to read Western newspapers to learn about the outward flow of cash from the country ... There must a fight against the criminalization of the economy," he said. Government rackets have been just as harmful to business as those of criminal organizations. To open a restaurant in Moscow, a businessman needs about 100 authorizations, Yakushin said. "The system is anti-business."

Yeltsin's resignation on December 31, 1999 caught Yakushin as much by surprise as it did the rest of the world. As press secretary, Yakushin learned of the resignation only on the morning of New Year's Eve, he said, while Putin had been informed of the plan by Yeltsin only 10 days earlier. Only in retrospect could people detect clues as to Yeltsin's intentions, Yakushin said.

Yakushin is a former reporter and is in the United States for a series of meetings with American officials.