Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 204

Two days of talks between Russian and Western leaders in Oslo, Norway, yielded no breakthroughs and few successes. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin continued to defy international calls for Moscow to step down its military operations in Chechnya. Moscow and Washington continued also to butt heads over the ABM treaty and ballistic missile defense. Russia and Israel clashed anew over Russian military technology leaks to Iran. With regard to Chechnya, the one diplomatic success appeared to be limited. Putin agreed to allow an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to visit the Russian North Caucasus, but it remained unclear yesterday whether the mission would actually be allowed into Chechnya itself.

Yesterday’s consultations came on the margins of a mini-summit devoted to the Middle East peace process. Putin held talks with U.S. President Bill Clinton and with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Putin also convened with officials from the EU and the OSCE. Few immediate details were available about the meeting with Arafat. A Russian source reported that the two men had agreed on the need to intensify the fight against international terrorism (the term Moscow uses to describe its military operations in Chechnya). Putin was quoted as restating Moscow’s now standard contention that the actions of the Chechen rebels have “nothing in common with Islam” (Itar-Tass, November 2). Russian diplomats have been fighting a rearguard action to quiet criticism in the Arab world of Moscow’s bloody crackdown in the north Caucasus.

On the subject of Chechnya, Putin’s meeting with Clinton–their second since the Russian premier’s appointment in August–went generally according to script. The U.S. president was described as having urged Putin in tough terms to seek a political settlement of the Chechen conflict and to avoid civilian casualties. In the same vein, he reportedly warned Putin that Russia’s offensive in Chechnya could “entail major loss of life of innocent people,” a development, he said, which could “affect Russia’s international reputation, which it’s been working very hard to try to restore.” But Clinton reportedly did not threaten any political or diplomatic retaliation against Moscow if it continued its assault on Chechnya.

As has been the case in his interactions with other U.S. and Western officials, Putin yesterday brushed aside Clinton’s objections over Russian policy in Chechnya. The Russian premier characterized the Chechen conflict as a domestic matter for the Russian government to handle, and called anew for the international community to help Moscow in its battle against the Chechen “terrorists” (Reuters, AP, Russian agencies, November 2; Washington Post, November 3).

The atmosphere during the Clinton-Putin meeting was apparently made cooler by Putin’s delivery of a message from Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin warned the United States against violating the ABM treaty by proceeding with plans to build a national ballistic missile defense system. Aside from simply restating Moscow’s opposition to U.S. efforts to renegotiate the terms of the 1972 accord, the timing of Yeltsin’s message (it was faxed to media outlets while Clinton was meeting with Putin) was presumably intended to deflect the criticism leveled at Moscow over its crackdown in Chechnya.

The Yeltsin message was also in line with recent Russian attempts to internationalize Russian-U.S. negotiations over the ABM treaty. That strategy is based on an understanding of how unpopular recent U.S. moves in the arms control arena–including the rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty–are in many foreign capitals. Yeltsin’s message yesterday was reportedly also sent to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Group of Seven member countries, and to China, India, South Africa and Sweden. Among other things, the message warned that any collapse of the ABM treaty due to U.S. missile defense plans “would have extremely dangerous consequences for the entire arms control process.”

Although only a few countries are directly involved in the ABM accord, the statement continued, “it in effect concerns the security interests of every state.” The statement did not outline specifically what “extremely dangerous consequences” might result from a U.S. withdrawal from the ABM (Reuters, EFE via COMTEX, Itar-Tass, November 2). But Russian officials have indicated previously that Russia (and probably China as well). would take a series of military counter-measures aimed at negating any advantages the United States might hope to gain from deploying a limited national missile defense system.