Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 51

A host of leading Western officials have made it clear in recent weeks that they are prepared to mute criticism of Russia’s war in Chechnya both to improve relations with Moscow more generally and to cement personal ties with Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was perhaps no surprise, therefore, that British Prime Minister Tony Blair this past weekend brushed aside the concerns of international human rights groups and the criticism of domestic political opponents to offer his embrace of the man who is overwhelmingly favored to win Russia’s March 26 presidential vote. As British newspaper reports suggested, however, the timing of Blair’s action may be especially significant. Blair is the first Western head of state to meet with Putin personally since the former KGB official was named acting president. Blair’s willingness to travel to St. Petersburg for talks with Putin right now, only two weeks prior to the Russian election and amid a growing international outcry over reported Russian atrocities in the North Caucasus, is likely to be interpreted in Russia as both a British endorsement of Putin’s candidacy and as a signal that the West is indeed prepared to accommodate Moscow’s bloody deeds in Chechnya.

That last point was made with particular clarity by Blair and his aides in comments to reporters during the flight to St. Petersburg on Friday evening (March 10). “Russia is too important a country to ignore or isolate over Chechnya,” a spokesman for the British prime minister was quoted as saying. “The prime minister’s key objective,” he continued, “is to build a personal relationship with Putin and to assess for himself where Putin is coming from and what he wants to achieve.” In his comments to the BBC, Blair appeared to highlight the responsibility that he believes Chechen rebels bear for events in the Caucasus. He reiterated Western concerns about human rights abuses in Chechnya and called on Russia to investigate all such incidents. But he also said that it is “important to realize that Chechnya isn’t Kosovo” and that the “Russians have been subjected to really severe terrorist attacks.”

Blair also told the BBC that the “way to conduct ethical foreign policy in these circumstances is to complain about abuses which occur and make sure [that] action is taken.” But it is unclear what kind of “action” Blair might be referring to. Months of Western protest appear to have done nothing to blunt the savagery of Russia’s military operations in the Caucasus. Moscow, moreover, has repeatedly and bluntly rejected Western calls for either a cease fire or a negotiated settlement to the conflict while simultaneously–and grudgingly–offering only the vaguest promises to open the region to international humanitarian and human rights groups.

Blair, not surprisingly, appeared to get more of the same from Putin this weekend. The Russian leader offered the same sort of superficial assurances he has given to other Western officials. He told Blair that “Russia is paying particular attention to the opinion of its foreign partners, especially such esteemed politicians as Tony Blair.” He also suggested that Moscow would “make adjustments” to its policies in the Caucasus, and that it would consider allowing international observers from the Red Cross and other organizations into the war zone. But the British delegation apparently said afterward that Putin had made no new concrete concessions. Instead, its reports suggested, he proffered the usual hardline defense of Russian actions in the Caucasus and repeated the Russian call for Western countries to support Russia’s battle against “international terrorism.” As had been the case during a visit to Russia last month by British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook (see the Monitor, February 24), Putin also cited the British experience in Northern Ireland and suggested that Russian security forces might be able to learn a thing or two from London in that regard. On that point Blair apparently demurred.

The Russian rebuff over Chechnya did not appear to bother the British prime minister. Blair apparently offered no public criticism of Russian actions in the Caucasus during his stay. Moreover, like a host of other Western leaders, including U.S. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Blair was also effusive in his praise for Putin personally. In remarks made on his flight back to London later on March 11, Blair described the acting Russian president not only as an “impressive” man, but also as “highly intelligent… with a focused view of what he wants to achieve in Russia.” (The last comment might come as a surprise to Russian voters, who have been told virtually nothing about what sorts of policies the Russian leader supports.)

Indeed, Blair went on to say, without providing any details, that Putin “wants to modernize his country… to build it for the future.” He also suggested that Putin has established two priorities for himself–reforming Russia’s economy so that it can welcome international investment, and opening up political relations with the outside world and forming strategic alliances. Again he did not elaborate. Finally, Blair appeared to shrug off not only Putin’s prosecution of the war in Chechnya, but other indications that the acting Russian president may have authoritarian tendencies. That was suggested by Blair’s remark that he saw no contradiction between what he called Putin’s robust nationalism and attempts to strengthen democracy. “Given what Russia’s been through and given the economic task of reconstruction, it’s not surprising he believes in a Russia which is ordered and strong but also democratic and liberal,” Blair was quoted as saying (The Guardian, March 11; The Observer, March 12; New York Times, March 12; Reuters, March 9-11; AFP, March 10, 12; AP, BBC, Russian agencies, March 11).