Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 1

Chechen Fighting, Angry Words Overshadow Summit Plans

The first week of May was dominated by three interrelated developments: dramatically increased fighting between Russian troops and Chechen fighters, increasingly harsh rhetoric between Moscow and Washington in the runup to the upcoming summit, and ever more frequent suggestions that the V-E anniversary commemorations in Moscow may generate support for Yeltsin at home but will not satisfy growing Western concerns about the direction Moscow is currently taking at home and abroad.

Yeltsin has wanted to put Chechnya behind him ever since the over-optimistic predictions of a quick Russian victory were dashed by determined Chechen resistance in December. His announcement of a unilateral cease-fire for the period of the V-E anniversary celebrations backfired as one would have expected: the Chechens stepped up their attacks, Russian losses mounted, and Western human rights activists, journalists and governments began to focus on Russian behaviour in Chechnya once again.

Russian commanders in the region acknowledged that the battle was not going well: the Chechens still control more than 40 percent of the territory of the republic and can strike anywhere else almost at will–even in Grozny where the Russian military imposed a curfew at the beginning of the weak. A Russian poll showed that more than half of the Russian officers serving there now want their army to pull out, and senior commanders in Moscow said that the Russian side could not possibly achieve victory before next winter, if then. And during that period, Russian losses will mount because fighting in the mountains will be like the war in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, relations between Moscow and Washington also began to deteriorate as well. Washington’s objections to Moscow’s planned sale of nuclear equipment to Iran only hardened Moscow’s resolve to do just that. Russian foreign ministry spokesmen noted that Moscow was not planning to sell the nuclear enrichment facility that the Western press had reported on, but in an indication of the new feeling in Moscow, one Russian nuclear energy official noted that even if Russia was and even if Iran did develop a nuclear device, it would be targeted on the United States and not against Russia. Adding to that, Yeltsin and Russian foreign minister Kozyrev again weighed in against NATO enlargement, Kozyrev refused to back down from his statements about the use of force to protect ethnic Russians abroad, and Russian spokesmen complained about the failure of international financial institutions to provide more aid to Moscow.

As a result of this new harder line and in recognition that the summit was unlikely to lead to any breakthroughs, officials in Washington sought to lower expectations for the meeting. Instead of the Clinton-Yeltsin session being about a partnership, Secretary of State Christopher suggested that it would be business-like, a diplomatic code word for a less than friendly gathering. Indeed, unnamed officials spread the word that the very fact of disagreement showed how strong the relationship really is. But the Russians could not miss the accompanying suggestions that Washington would not desert Yeltsin and thus could feel confident that President Clinton would not be prepared to put any really serious pressure on the Russian president. For domestic reasons–ever more Russians object to American involvement in Russia, a poll suggested–Yeltsin has every reason to say "nyet" to the Americans; the Americans have now told him that just like so many other recent Russian steps, that "nyet" will not have consequences.

And third, and despite both these developments, the Russians continued the build up for the V-E day commemorations. Moscow was given a rapid clean-up, the most extensive some officials said since Nicholas II’s ill-fated coronation there in 1896. The Russian media played up patriotic themes, the Russian army was visiible in the Russian capital than it has been for some months, and the authorities brought in some 20,000 additional police to ensure order. One cynic suggested that one might be able to walk the streets in the evenings for at least the two nights of the commemoration. But criticism at home and abroad concerning Chechnya, Moscow’s failure to get an IMF agreement on debt rescheduling, and an economy that has not turned up even if it is no longer going down quite so fast has left many Russians in a foul rather than festive mood.