In a week dominated by high-level diplomatic contacts between top Russian and Western government officials, Moscow appeared on two different occasions to bend to recent Western criticism. It was unclear afterward, however, whether the oh-so-rare Russian concessions were in any way meaningful, or whether they were designed simply to placate European and American leaders so that Moscow could move on to what it is really interested in: improving the political climate and thereby boosting the chances for Russia to receive Western financial aid and investment.

The first of Russia’s “mea culpas” came during a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and his counterparts from the NATO countries in Florence on May 24. The NATO-Russian talks were themselves significant insofar as they represented the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council at the ministerial level since the Western Alliance began its air attacks against Yugoslavia last spring. Ivanov’s presence in Florence was interpreted as yet another sign that Moscow might be moving at last to begin “unfreezing” relations with NATO, and that the alliance’s efforts to improve ties with the new Putin government were bearing some fruit. The willingness of Western officials in Florence–and elsewhere–to mute criticism of Russia’s still bloody war in Chechnya testified to the importance that they have attached to pursuing cooperation with Moscow.

One point of irritation that remained to be dealt with in Florence, however, was a five-day visit to Moscow earlier this month by Yugoslav Defense Minister Dragoljub Ojdanic. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia had been obligated to arrest the indicted war criminal, and there was some outrage in the West that Moscow had chosen to roll out the red carpet for him instead. In Florence, however, Ivanov reportedly “apologized” for the Ojdanic visit and suggested that it had occurred only because of some sort of miscommunication between bureaucracies in the Russian government. He spoke vaguely of the Kremlin’s intention to “discipline” the Defense Ministry officials at fault for the alleged snafu.

A similar note of contrition from Moscow was sounded on May 29 during a long anticipated summit meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and European Union leaders in the Russian capital. The Russian president pledged that Moscow would move, as the West has urged, both to investigate reports of atrocities by Russian forces in the Caucasus and to increase access to the region for media and, presumably, international human rights groups. Putin’s pledges appeared to be of some significance because up to now Russian officials have generally denied charges either that Russian troops have acted improperly in Chechnya or that Moscow has been anything but open to the world community in terms of reporting about events in the Caucasus.

There was little reason to take the recent Russian concessions at face value, however. Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov’s explanations for the Ojdanic visit were anything but convincing and were followed by fresh denunciations of the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The Florence meeting came, moreover, amid clear signs that Moscow is intent on improving relations with the regime in Belgrade and thus thwarting Western efforts to isolate Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Putin’s pledges with regard to Chechnya appeared in a similar light. Moscow has shown no inclination to investigate Russian soldiers for the atrocities they have allegedly committed during the Caucasus military operations. The Putin government’s real view toward “transparency” in Chechnya, moreover, has been best exemplified by two recent incidents: the authorities’ move to harass and intimidate Media-Most, the private company which has been most critical of the Chechen war effort, and the seizure by Russian authorities of an Amnesty International report that outlined the actions of Russian forces in the Caucasus.

The diplomatic jousting between Moscow and the West came as U.S. President Bill Clinton launched his swan-song visit to Europe and on the eve of the first Russian-U.S. summit in the new Putin era. Despite obvious and continuing differences with Moscow, European leaders welcomed the EU-Russian summit as the start of a new era of economic and political cooperation with Moscow. The Clinton-Putin meeting seemed likely to conclude with similar exclamations, despite continuing sharp differences between Washington and Moscow on issues ranging from arms control to Russian-Iranian defense cooperation.