?Ironically, despite the disturbing political developments in Russia and the international outcry over apparent Russian atrocities in Chechnya, the Kremlin’s major Western partners appeared over the past fortnight to be shifting the issue of the Caucasus war to the back burner and to be focusing instead on improving relations with Moscow. Russian actions in Chechnya were on the agenda during NATO Secretary General George Robertson’s February 16 visit to the Russian capital, but pride of place during his talks there was clearly given to a push for renewed cooperation between Moscow and the Western alliance. The issue of Chechnya also reared its head one day later, when Moscow complained over a meeting in Washington between U.S. State Department officials and a representative of the Chechen government. But while Moscow’s actions in Chechnya appeared sure to remain an irritant in dealings between Russia and the West, the Clinton administration and European leaders appeared set to put a year of acrimony in the past and to begin the process of mending fences with Russia. That sentiment, which was being reciprocated in Moscow, appeared to be driven at least in part by Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in the Kremlin, and by Western hopes of ushering in a period of renewed cooperation in the looming “Putin era.”
It was against this background that Robertson traveled to Moscow for talks with top Russian leaders on February 16. The visit followed nearly two months of intense, behind the scenes negotiations between Moscow and the West, and was finalized only on the very eve of Robertson’s planned arrival in the Russian capital. Indeed, the negotiations to determine the conditions under which a Robertson visit would be possible were apparently being conducted on two fronts: between Moscow and the Western alliance and between pragmatic and hardline forces–particularly from the military–within the Russian government itself. The latter group appears to have insisted on attaching conditions to Robertson’s visit that would have been unacceptable to NATO, and their intransigence threatened to scuttle the visit until the very last minute. Robertson himself suggested that it was Putin who had had ultimately stepped in to bring the generals back into line and to ensure that the Moscow talks took place.
However true that might have been, the final statement produced on February 16 seemed clearly to represent a victory for the pragmatists. It spoke of a renewal of relations between Russia and NATO, and suggested that consultations between the two sides under the aegis of the Permanent Joint Council–the body created under a 1997 Russia-NATO political agreement–would encompass a wide range of security issues. Military hardliners had urged that the council discussions deal solely with the Kosovo peacekeeping mission, a condition that had been imposed by Moscow last year as part of its decision to “freeze” relations with NATO. Given the seriousness of the issues that continue to divide Moscow and the Western alliance, Robertson’s February 16 talks in the Russian capital are no guarantee that the two sides will be able to reestablish a workable partnership. But they clearly represented a diplomatic breakthrough of some significance and appeared to indicate that, for the moment at least, Putin has thrown his weight behind a policy of engagement with the West. How sustainable that policy is, and under which conditions Putin proposes to rebuild ties with the West will become clear only in the weeks and months to come. Western governments, in turn, may be forced into some difficult decisions regarding the extent to which they want to link improved diplomatic ties with Moscow to domestic political developments in Russia. Such choices may be not unlike those that faced Western policy-makers during the Cold War era.