Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 39

British Foreign Minister Robin Cook wound up two days of talks in Moscow yesterday, consultations which included a ninety-minute meeting with Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin. At a concluding press conference Cook was effusive in his praise of the new Russian leader, as much so as top Clinton administration officials have been in recent weeks. He also managed to be somehow even more accommodating to the Kremlin regarding Russia’s war in the Caucasus. If there had been any doubt before, Cook’s visit appeared to confirm that key Western leaders have indeed decided to mute criticism of Russian actions in Chechnya in order to promote ties to Moscow more generally. A key element of that strategy appears to involve a public embrace of Putin so pronounced as to constitute a virtual endorsement of him as a presidential candidate. In the days immediately following Putin’s surprise appointment as acting head of state, some Western leaders were reported to have had at least some misgivings about his rise to power. But Western governments now seem prepared to sweep aside not only his sponsorship of the carnage in Chechnya and reports of Russian atrocities there, but mounting evidence that the policies of the career intelligence officer may pose a threat to one of the few real accomplishments of the Yeltsin era–a (relatively) free press.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov suggested yesterday that his talks with Cook on Chechnya had been “frank and open,” and had not avoided “disagreements and pressing issues.” If serious tensions on this subject did exist between the two sides, however, Cook gave little indication of it in his remarks to the press. With regard to Putin personally, Cook reportedly called him a “refreshingly open” man who would push economic reforms in Russia while building better relations with the West.

On the question of Moscow’s war in Chechnya, Cook appears to have been, well, exceedingly polite. He told reporters that London had asked Moscow “whenever possible to be more open towards the international community.” Moreover, a Putin aide claimed that the issue of Russia’s disproportionate use of force in Chechnya–the standard criticism offered to date by Western countries of Russia’s Caucasus war–had not even been raised during the Putin-Cook talks. Instead, Cook suggested that Moscow had in fact already taken Western criticism over Chechnya to heart, and that it was now inadvisable for the West to further harden its position on the issue. “Any tougher remarks [by the West] “are unlikely to be required,” Cook said, because “it is no less important for us to maintain good relations with Russia. That will enable us to work fruitfully on a whole series of other issues that are very important to the whole world.”

Cook appears to have been remarkably accommodating in accepting Putin’s assurances about Russian policies in the Caucasus. The acting Russian president reportedly told Cook, for example, that the war in Chechnya “has largely been transferred to a political level.” Cook was also said to have welcomed the Kremlin’s appointment of a human rights representative for Chechnya and, according to Putin foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko, did accept Putin’s explanations regarding the fate of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky. According to Cook, Putin assured him that Babitsky was with civilians in the mountains of southern Chechnya, not with the rebel forces.

It is unclear whether Cook’s seeming naivete on these various issues was real or, as is more likely the case, the product of London’s determination to mend fences with Moscow. But Moscow has in no respect acceded to earlier EU demands that it abandon force and begin political negotiations with the Chechen side, as Putin’s remark suggested. Nor is the appointment of Vladimir Kalamanov as human rights representative for Chechnya likely to shed any light on allegations by human rights groups that Russian troops are guilty of torturing, raping and murdering civilians in Chechnya. To date, Moscow’s operations in the region have been as much a propaganda as a military war, and there is no reason to believe that the Kremlin is now prepared to open the Caucasus up to either journalists or Western humanitarian groups–as Putin also suggested–unless it can be done in a way which permits Moscow to continue to whitewash the reporting of events in the region.

The Chechen war was not the only issue on the agenda. The two sides also reportedly discussed European security matters and issues related to bilateral relations. In the latter sphere, and reflecting both sides’ desire to start putting a year of acrimony behind them, Cook reportedly emphasized the high priority which London attaches to relations with Moscow and its desire to ultimately build a “long-term strategic partnership” with Russia. The two sides also spoke of boosting stagnating levels of bilateral trade between Russia and Britain, and of increasing British investment in the Russian economy. As a final sign of their mutual desire to improve bilateral ties, Cook reportedly handed Putin an invitation from British Prime Minister Tony Blair to visit Britain sometime after Russia’s March 26 presidential election (Reuters, BBC, Russian agencies, February 23).