Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 235

Despite a vow by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on December 16 that Washington intended to deliver a “strong message” to Moscow, U.S. hesitancy was reportedly behind a failure of Group of Seven nations a day later to threaten punitive steps against Russia if it continues its bloody crackdown in the Caucasus. Tensions were reportedly high at the Berlin meeting of foreign ministers from the G-8 countries–the G-7 plus Russia–as Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov once again found himself facing sharp Western criticism over his country’s military actions in Chechnya.

U.S. equivocations notwithstanding, the G-7 nations–Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States–were reportedly united in demanding an immediate ceasefire and the start of negotiations in Chechnya. Albright and others warned that Moscow risked isolating itself more fully from the West if it did not change its policies in Chechnya. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman Knut Vollebaek, just back from a visit to the Caucasus, said that a ceasefire was urgent, “because there will otherwise be a bloodbath” in the region. Ivanov, not surprisingly, continued Moscow’s policy of stonewalling on the issue, ruling out any international mediation of the conflict and warning the West against interfering in Moscow’s internal affairs. The meeting was made awkward, and the scope of each side for maneuver was constrained, by the fact that Russia’s parliamentary elections were scheduled for Sunday.

A statement, adopted by the other seven countries over Russia’s objections, was read out by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer at the close of the December 17 meeting. The statement (1) demanded an immediate and long-term ceasefire–one which will permit civilians trapped by troops in Chechnya to leave–and the establishment of formal contacts between Moscow and the Chechens, including President Aslan Maskhadov; (2) called for the convening of a regional peace conference on Chechnya, and an agreement on the delivery of humanitarian aid through effectively policed safe corridors; and (3) reaffirmed Russia’s right to defend its territorial integrity, but argued that Moscow’s military policies had spilled over the rest of the region in a fashion which meant that the conflict was no longer an internal issue for the Russian government to handle.

According to news accounts from Berlin, some European diplomats nevertheless expressed frustration over the toothless Western response to Russia’s escalating aggression in the Chechen republic and its latest onslaught against the capital city of Djohar. France reportedly took the hardest line toward Moscow during the three-hour Berlin meeting, followed by Britain and Germany. Prior to the December 19 meeting, German officials had hinted that Berlin might consider cutting back economic aid or banning Russia from participating in future meetings with the G-7 countries if Moscow fails to alter its policies in Chechnya. The European Union has likewise threatened to consider sanctions if Moscow does not end its crackdown.

But there are differences even among European nations over how severe the EU should be in punishing Moscow for the war in Chechnya, and that factor plus Washington’s own hesitations appear to be paralyzing the West’s response. Germany, for example, which is Russia’s largest creditor, reportedly opposes calls for trade sanctions against Russia. And the United States apparently refuses to agree even to a moderate European idea of “no sanctions but no aid” to Moscow. “We believe it is still in our national interest to maintain relations with Russia, because we have worked very hard to bring them closer to us in recent years,” Albright was quoted as saying in Berlin. That stand, and the differences among the Europeans, appeared to ensure that the joint statement produced by the December 16 meeting included no threat of sanctions or other concrete, punitive actions against Russia (AP, IPS, Reuters, December 17; Washington Post, New York Times, December 18).

The Clinton administration’s commitment to engagement over punishment vis-a-vis Russia is likely to be tested over the next several days. Albright suggested last week that the administration was reviewing its support for Export-Import Bank loans for projects in Russia (AP, December 16). It must now decide whether to back some US$500 million in loan guarantees to a controversial Russian concern–the Tyumen Oil Co.–that the Ex-Im Bank will decide on this week. Presidential candidates George W. Bush, John McCain and Bill Bradley have all urged the Clinton administration to halt Ex-Im Bank loans to Russia (Washington Post, December 19).

Russia’s isolation at the G-8 meeting was manifested in the meeting’s final news conference. In order to avoid sitting through more public criticism of Russia’s Chechnya campaign, Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov apparently refused to appear at a joint news conference with the other G-8 ministers. That meant, instead, that each minister held a separate news conference or briefing. And the final statement, read out by German Foreign Minister Fischer, was called a “chairman’s statement” because of Moscow’s refusal to agree to a joint statement of the type typically produced at such gatherings (New York Times, December 18).