Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 200

Despite a variety of other issues on his agenda during his visits to Spain, Italy and France this week, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s trip did seem primarily devoted to defending Russia’s military operations in Chechnya against mounting criticism. In his public statements at least, the Russian minister was anything but delicate. In Italy, for example, he told journalists bluntly that Russian authorities would not be influenced by pressure from Western political leaders. “We shall act in the interests of the Russian Federation,” he said, “and such steps will be fully supported by all democratic forces and by the people.” Without elaborating, he also intimated that Western countries were proceeding at their own peril if they chose to confront Moscow on the issue of Chechnya (RIA, October 26).

Ivanov appeared to warn the West against accepting accounts of events in the Caucasus that do not coincide with those dispensed by the Russian Defense Ministry and government. In a telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on October 24 Ivanov was quoted as having accused Chechen leaders of opening up a “second front,” that is, a media campaign, to counter their growing isolation and to obscure their increasing desperation. “The goal of this venture is apparent–to cast a shadow on the actions of [Russian] federal authorities, [and] to try to complicate Russia’s relations with partners in the world.” Moscow’s efforts to characterize reports of the carnage in Chechnya as some sort of disinformation campaign have only increased Western concerns over the functioning and mindset of the current government.

Criticism of Moscow’s Chechen campaign has, meanwhile, continued to mount, albeit without any real steps yet being taken which might give Russian leaders reason to halt military actions. German government officials have perhaps been the most outspoken critics of Moscow, while the EU generally has pressed for political negotiations to end the fighting and for the dispatch of humanitarian aid to civilians in the Caucasus. The United States has called for a political resolution of the crisis and warned that continued fighting would destabilize the region.

Perhaps more interesting have been the reactions of some Arab states to the fighting. Egypt has called for an end to the bloodshed in Chechnya while Saudi Arabia has expressed its concern over the casualties being suffered by innocent children and women there. Even Iran, one of Russia’s closest partners in the region, on October 23 deplored the marketplace bombing in Djohar one day earlier. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman called for Russia to use peaceful means to settle the conflict. A British diplomat, meanwhile, was reportedly dispatched to the United Arab Emirates this week in order to coordinate policy between the EU and the Organization of the Islamic Conference aimed at encouraging a political resolution of the Chechen conflict (Xinhua, October 23; Itar-Tass, October 26).

Russia has been concerned that its actions in Chechnya could alienate the Muslim world, and earlier this month dispatched envoys to Middle Eastern countries in order to explain Russian policy in Chechnya. Much as it has with regard to its relations with Western countries, Moscow has claimed to have met with understanding throughout the Middle East. But recent rumblings suggest a prolonged war in the Caucasus could strain friendships for Russia in the Arab world as well as in the West.