Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 22

Like a broken record, U.S. and Russian diplomats went round and round on a host of familiar issues yesterday. The rhetoric, the arguments and the disagreements remained much the same as they have been for several months now. Yet again both sides failed to make any significant progress on key arms control issues or on finding a way to end Russia’s war in Chechnya. Both U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov nevertheless put a positive spin on the days’ events. Albright said she remained hopeful that the two countries would ultimately overcome differences regarding strategic arms control and the ABM treaty. Ivanov called his talks with Albright–which apparently lasted a good part of the day–“constructive, frank and useful.”

Continuing differences between Russia and the United States over Moscow’s bloody crackdown in Chechnya were highlighted during a press conference which followed the Ivanov-Albright talks. The U.S. secretary of state accused Moscow of having inflicted “an incredible amount of misery” on civilians in Chechnya by targeting them indiscriminately and forcing them from their homes. She also said that Moscow was paying a heavy toll internationally for the war in the Caucasus and that its military actions there were leaving Russia “increasingly isolated” on the world stage.

Ivanov brushed aside Albright’s criticism and warnings, suggesting that Moscow had no choice but to continue the Caucasus war and alleging that the West, for all its condemnations, had yet to come up with a better way for Moscow to deal with the Chechen rebels. He also said that Albright is wrong about Russia’s possible diplomatic isolation. Ivanov claimed that most governments around the world agree on the necessity for Moscow “to fight most firmly against terrorism,” and he suggested that those governments not sharing this view would soon get over their objections (Reuters, AP, Russian agencies, January 31; International Herald Tribune, February 1).

Albright’s criticism of Russia’s Chechen operations may have been some of the most direct yet uttered by a senior Clinton administration official. Yet the broader failure to back the criticism up with any credible threat of punitive action has opened the way for Moscow to interpret–or dismiss–Washington’s rhetoric as political posturing. It appears also to have contributed to the apparent confidence of Russian officials that the war will, in fact, have no long-term negative impact on Moscow’s relations with the West. The same conclusion was probably drawn by Moscow last week with regard to European criticism of the Russian war in Chechnya. Both the European Union and the Council of Europe backed off threats to make Moscow pay–albeit in mild forms–for the continued destruction that Russian forces are wreaking upon Chechen civilians (see the Monitor, January 28).

Repeated Western proclamations of support for the Russian government’s more general right to battle terrorism on its own territory, meanwhile, have allowed Moscow to do some political posturing of its own–much of it for domestic consumption–by claiming to enjoy the support of the international community. More to the point, perhaps, these same Western proclamations have left unchallenged Moscow’s dubious claim that the war in the Caucasus is, in essence, an “anti-terrorist” operation rather than a brutal military crackdown on a restive and impoverished ethnic minority. In their official actions Western governments have also by and large studiously avoided interpreting the Chechen war in the way some observers in Russia have: as, in essence, the key component of a devious Kremlin political strategy aimed at ensuring Vladimir Putin’s election as Russia’s next president.