Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 49

In an opinion piece published yesterday by the Washington Post, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright defended the Clinton administration’s stance with regard both to acting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political ambitions and to Russia’s brutal war in the Caucasus (Washington Post, March 8). In essence, Albright denied allegations that the Clinton administration had either “endorsed” Putin’s candidacy for the Russian presidency or softened its criticism of the Chechen war. On the first count, Albright argued that words of praise from top Clinton administration officials for the personal qualities which Putin has purportedly brought to the Russian presidency have been balanced by a hard-headed recognition that he also carries a great deal of more worrisome baggage. She suggests in that connection that Washington–and the West more generally–face the difficult task of reconciling these seemingly contradictory “strands” in Putin’s biography. Putin is thus, as Clinton administration (and other Western) leaders have described him, “capable and energetic, knowledgeable on the issues, blunt and direct, with some positive things to say about economic reform, the rule of law and arms control.” Albright points at the same time to the fact that Putin is a career KGB officer and has overseen the “massively destructive Chechen military campaign.”

What Albright seems to avoid acknowledging is that the Clinton administration has praised Putin more often than it has criticized him. More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that the timing–as Russia’s presidential campaign began to gain momentum–and the effusiveness of this praise was interpreted by many observers in Russia as a de-facto sign of the Clinton administration’s “endorsement” of the acting Russian president. That perception is perhaps particularly unfortunate given that last December’s parliamentary elections and the subsequent, unexpected resignation of President Boris Yeltsin left tarnished not only the democratic process in Russia but also the country’s crucial first transition of executive power in the post-Soviet period. The Kremlin’s more recent efforts to intimidate the country’s free press, together with intimations that Putin may be set on strengthening the powers of Russia’s security agencies, can only raise additional questions about Putin’s attitude toward Russia’s democratization.

Similarly, on the question of U.S. reactions to the Russian war in Chechnya, Albright seems to avoid addressing the real concerns of those–including, in this case, various human rights groups–who have accused the Clinton administration of not moving forcefully enough. Albright lists some of the numerous occasions on which administration officials have expressed their extreme displeasure over Moscow’s actions in Chechnya to Russian leaders. But it is worth mentioning that President Bill Clinton’s actions during one of the earliest of those occasions–last November’s OSCE summit in Istanbul–were actually interpreted by some Russian observers as a virtual endorsement by Washington of Russia’s war in the Caucasus (New York Times, November 20, 1999). That is in part because Clinton was far less critical of Russian behavior in the Caucasus than European leaders were (see the Monitor, November 30, 1999).

But the more trenchant criticism of the Clinton administration’s policy toward Russia over Chechnya (and that of leading European governments as well) is not that the administration has failed to condemn the war in Chechnya, that U.S. leaders have not gone beyond the voicing of critical statements. Despite some small linkage of international aid money for Russia to the war in Chechnya, the administration in general has avoided threatening punitive measures of any sort. Neither has it apparently done much to promote efforts by some other countries to introduce the issue for discussion at the UN. The failure by the West to oppose Russia’s Chechen war in a more concrete fashion has led Russian leaders and political commentators to look on Western criticism with increasing contempt. It appears likewise to have convinced the Kremlin that it can continue the bloodshed in Chechnya–with hopes of a military “victory” before the March 26 election–without having to worry that it will pay a diplomatic price in terms of relations with the West.

All this has led to considerable speculation that the Clinton administration is, in fact, pulling its punches on Chechnya in order to improve the chances for a major arms control deal with Moscow (or, if some Russian commentaries are to be believed, to ensure that Russia does not act too precipitously in exploiting current Western difficulties in Kosovo). Albright firmly denied any linkage between Chechnya and U.S. arms control efforts. But such denials are unlikely to quiet all doubters so long as the killing goes on in the Caucasus and the United States does not act more decisively either to end the fighting or, increasingly, to ensure that reported atrocities committed by Russian troops there are investigated by international authorities.