Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 2

The Kremlin’s struggles with the West over the Russian military campaign in Chechnya persisted over the past fortnight, as criticism continued to rain down on Moscow from Europe and the United States and a host of officials from the Council of Europe descended upon the Russian capital. Although acting Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of the authors of the brutal Russian military campaign and has garnered enormous political gains at home for his tough-talking approach to the conflict, he chose during talks with the European delegation to appear in the role of statesman and conciliator. He extended his meeting with the Europeans from one to three hours and expressed his understanding for the “concerns of the international community over events in the North Caucasus.”

Afterward the head of the Council of Europe delegation and the president of the Council’s parliamentary assembly, Lord David Russell-Johnston, suggested that Putin had both shown flexibility during the discussions and indicated his openness to suggestions from the Council regarding Russian policy in Chechnya. Russell-Johnston also said that he had won agreement from Putin for the establishment of an “international presence” in Ingushetia and parts of Chechnya.

But the performance of this suddenly kinder and gentler Putin, presumably aimed at proving to Western leaders that he is a man they can do business with, was belied by Russian policy on the ground in Chechnya and by Russian Foreign Ministry statements. Indeed, even as the Council of Europe delegation prepared to set off on a fact-finding mission to the Caucasus, Russian forces stepped up the intensity of their bombardments in Chechnya. And Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, in remarks which followed Putin’s meeting with the European lawmakers, warned bluntly that foreign officials who are considering sanctions against Moscow should not bother coming to Russia at all. He also blasted Western media for their “biased and one-sided” coverage of events in Chechnya and suggested that Western journalists are being manipulated by “the patrons of terrorists and their allies.”

Ivanov’s mention of sanctions were a reminder that the diplomatic stakes for Moscow may prove to be substantial. Russell-Johnston had suggested that Russian membership in the Council of Europe might be suspended on the basis of the military campaign in Chechnya. That threat was paralleled by European Union (EU) warnings that Russia faces possible economic sanctions over the Caucasus war. The Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly is expected to debate the Chechnya conflict on January 27; an EU meeting on the same issue will take place on January 24. In Washington, meanwhile, the Clinton administration continued to equivocate in its own response to events in Chechnya. But White House officials will likely face increasing pressure to take a harder line toward Moscow as the U.S. presidential election campaign intensifies. Washington did, however, earn a denunciation from Moscow over a decision to allow Chechnya’s foreign minister to visit the United States.