Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 103

Russia and NATO took another small step forward in their unsteady effort at reconciliation yesterday when Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov traveled to Florence for a meeting with the foreign ministers of NATO member countries. Ivanov’s visit, which also included several separate bilateral meetings, marked the first time that the Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council had met at the ministerial level since the start of NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia last spring. Not surprisingly, yesterday’s meeting yielded the sort of mixed signals which have become common in encounters between Moscow and the Western alliance. NATO leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and NATO Secretary General George Robertson, welcomed Moscow back to the ministerial level council meeting and suggested that Ivanov’s presence was evidence of slowly improving ties between the two sides. But it was unclear whether the NATO-Russia partnership was advanced in any concrete sense by yesterday’s talks. Moreover, the two sides clashed sharply over Moscow’s recent decision to host a visit by Yugoslav Defense Minister General Dragoljub Ojdanic, a convicted war criminal, and, to a lesser degree, over recent Russian threats to bomb Afghanistan. Ivanov’s effort to explain those issues was anything but convincing.

Ojdanic’s visit to Moscow earlier this month had drawn immediate condemnations from Western governments and the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Western leaders repeated those criticisms yesterday in their face-to-face meeting with Ivanov, who appeared to concede that Moscow had acted improperly. But the concession was highly conditional. Ivanov told NATO ministers in Florence that Ojdanic’s visit was the result of an “internal technical hitch between agencies and ministries,” and added that “measures are being taken so that this shall not be repeated.” He also claimed that the Russian government had passed this same explanation along to the war crimes tribunal and now considers the matter closed. Moreover, Ivanov went on the offensive by repeating Russian accusations that the international tribunal is “not acting objectively” in any event, and that it had “long since turned into a politicized and not a judicial body.” He also warned that Moscow was considering raising the question of the tribunal’s performance at the UN.

Ivanov’s explanation was hardly convincing. He reportedly sidestepped a question about whether he or President Vladimir Putin had been aware of Ojdanic’s visit. Yet it is hard to believe that the Russian Defense Ministry, which held talks with Ojdanic at the highest levels (including with Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and General Staff chief Anatoly Kvashnin), could have brought the indicted war criminal to Moscow without the Kremlin’s approval, or that Ojdanic could have spent five days holding consultations and participating in public ceremonies without the knowledge of the Russian leadership. Indeed, to take at face value what Ivanov appeared to be saying implied a perhaps even more disturbing scenario: that the hardline generals on whose backs Putin rode to power may have brought Ojdanic to Moscow without the civilian authorities’ knowledge. That would suggest that Putin has a good deal less control over the military than is generally believed.

Ivanov’s explanations for recent statements from Moscow concerning possible Russian air strikes on the bases of Islamic groups in Afghanistan were equally dubious. During his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Ivanov reportedly offered assurances that Moscow has, in fact, no plans to attack Afghanistan. According to a senior U.S. official, Ivanov had “assured [Albright] that no such actions were being contemplated…. He implied that there had been a misunderstanding of the statements made by Mr. Yastrzhembsky.” Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky had accused Afghanistan’s Taliban government in Minsk on May 22 of harboring Chechen rebels and had warned that Russia might carry out “preventive strikes” on their alleged bases. The problem with Ivanov’s assurances in Florence was that both Ivanov and Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev appeared to back up Yastrzhembsky’s warning yesterday during a visit to Minsk which preceded Ivanov’s arrival in Florence. Indeed, Ivanov was quoted in the Belarusan capital as saying that, “if a potential threat emerges [in Afghanistan], various actions become possible, including those mentioned by Yastrzhembsky” (Reuters, May 24).

But the weakness of Ivanov’s explanations in Florence appeared to be beside the point. Western leaders appeared instead to be intent on accenting the positive side of Ivanov’s attendance at the meeting and to be more than ready to put aside their outrage, particularly over Ojdanic’s visit to Moscow. The Russian government, moreover, now understands very well how this game works. Western criticisms of Russian behavior, sometimes sharply delivered, are uttered at various public forums. But they are ultimately ineffective, because Western hopes of rebuilding friendly relations with Moscow preclude them from backing up their criticism with any credible threat of punitive action. The issue of Ojdanic’s visit to Moscow was not alone in this regard. There was also virtually no mention in news reports yesterday of direct criticism of Russia’s war in Chechnya. That issue had until only recently been one of the major sticking points in Moscow’s relations with the West (AP, Reuters, BBC, Russian agencies, May 24; International Herald Tribune, May 25).