Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 6

Not surprisingly, relations between Russia and the West also continued to revolve around Moscow’s bloody war in Chechnya. The war’s centrality was evident in the fact that U.S. and European leaders, who have heartily embraced Putin and who are pursuing friendly relations with Moscow more generally, were compelled to justify those policies in light of the continued fighting in the Caucasus and the proliferating evidence of Russian atrocities there. Human rights groups and various Western political forces less friendly toward Moscow, meanwhile, used that same evidence to press demands for a harder line toward Russia. The Kremlin, meanwhile, was driven by political imperatives of its own. Putin’s efforts to present himself as a man with whom the West “could do business” were undermined by the need to fashion some sort of military “victory” in Chechnya prior to the March 26 presidential election. Those competing demands resulted in a series of contradictory signals from Moscow, as calls for improved East-West ties alternated with denunciations of American and European “meddling” in Russia’s Caucasus policies.

This troubled state of affairs was evident in a series of diplomatic events that took place over the past fortnight. One was a three-way meeting between Russia, the EU and the United States held in Lisbon on March 2-3. Another was a defense of the Clinton administration’s policies toward Russia written by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. A third was British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s March 10 visit to St. Petersburg. The fortnight was topped off by warnings issued on March 13 by a top official of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). The British Lord Judd, who had headed a PACE fact-finding mission to the North Caucasus, said that Moscow faced suspension from the human rights organization if it did not take decisive steps to end the war in Chechnya. The Lisbon talks and the PACE fact-finding mission highlighted the extent to which Russian intractability over the war in Chechnya remains a major disruptive force in relations between Moscow and the West. Albright’s opinion piece and, especially, Blair’s visit to St. Petersburg, illustrated the apparent determination of key Western leaders to mute criticism of the Chechen war in order to pursue friendly relations with Putin and his “post-Yeltsin Russia.”

The Lisbon talks were the first of their kind insofar as they brought together foreign ministers from Russia, the EU and the United States. Although they also included discussions on the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and other international issues, the Lisbon talks were clearly dominated by the war in Chechnya. EU and U.S. officials claimed to have won some minor commitments from Moscow to allow international monitoring of the situation in Chechnya. But European officials in particular indicated their frustration with the results of the meeting and suggested that Moscow had done little to meet their core demands. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, for his part, used the meeting to claim anew that the perceived ugliness of Russia’s Chechen operations is nothing more than a figment of the Western media’s imagination.

The conclusion of the PACE delegation’s fact-finding mission to the Caucasus followed similar lines. The delegation’s participants were said to have been aghast at the destruction that Russian forces have wreaked on the Chechen capital of Djohar. Judd warned that Russia’s abject failure to satisfy earlier Council of Europe demands for an end to the fighting in Chechnya could lead to Moscow’s suspension from the body in April. The Russian side reacted with truculence to Judd’s warning. A top Russian human rights official called talk of Moscow’s suspension an “insult” to Russia. He also said that Russia could cut off even the limited access to the Caucasus region which it has granted thus far to international human rights and aid groups.

In her March 8 Washington Post piece, Albright denied allegations that the Clinton administration had either “endorsed” Putin’s candidacy for the presidency or softened its criticism of the Chechen war. But her explanations failed to acknowledge the degree to which the effusiveness and the timing of Clinton administration officials’ praise for Putin has been interpreted in Russia as an endorsement of the career KGB official. Many Russian observers have likewise viewed Washington’s quieter approach to the Chechen war–particularly in contrast to the harder line taken earlier by some European leaders–as de facto acceptance of Moscow’s Caucasus policies.

Blair’s visit to St. Petersburg prompted similar conclusions in Russia. Indeed, Blair’s willingness to meet with Putin only two weeks before the presidential election was seen by many in Moscow as a major boost to Putin’s campaign effort. The British delegation, moreover, appeared explicitly to endorse the view that the West is in fact prepared to accommodate Russian actions in Chechnya in order to promote broader cooperation. Blair’s performance suggested that any move by the Council of Europe to suspend Russia’s membership in April could cause consternation not only in Moscow, but in some Western capitals as well.