Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 213

The Russian wrangle with Britain had a seemingly more innocuous beginning, but appears also to have assumed increasing importance in Moscow’s eyes. The row began following a November 12 incident in which four journalists from the Russian television stations ORT and NTV were roughed up–two of them seriously–by pro-Chechen demonstrators holding a fundraising event in London. On November 13 Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin described the incident as “scandalous” and told reporters that “we will ask British authorities for explanations as well as action against the thugs who broke every rule.” On the same day, the Russian embassy in London lodged an official protest with the British Foreign Office expressing Russia’s “concern and indignation” over the attack (AFP, RIA, November 14).

The reaction was much the same in Moscow. On November 13 a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman warned that the Russian government would “not leave this outrageous incident without consequences. We will demand explanations from the British side… and we will demand that it… bring the unruly hooligans to justice.” On November 14 the British ambassador to Moscow, Andrew Wood, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry. There he was handed a note demanding “that the British authorities immediately investigate the shocking incident [and] punish those guilty” (Itar-Tass, November 13-14).

Given the Russian government’s cavalier treatment of journalists in Russia, not to mention its extensive efforts aimed at refusing them any real access to the current conflict in the Caucasus, this week’s protests over the beatings in London appear to be mostly a public relations exercise. What Moscow appears to be more interested in is what it contends are the activities of militant pro-Chechen groups operating in Britain. Indeed, the Russian diplomatic notes passed to the British side on November 13 and 14–in London and Moscow, respectively–referred to “the activity in Britain of organizations which openly aid international terrorists who commit crimes in the Northern Caucasus.”

The same message was underlined in British reports yesterday, when a senior Russian diplomat warned that a failure by London to deal with pro-Chechen groups in Britain would “have serious repercussions for our bilateral relations.” Aleksandr Kramarenko, the charge d’affaires at the Russian embassy in London, also said that Russian intelligence officials had, over the past several weeks, passed on information to their British counterparts indicating that Islamic extremists were being trained at secret locations around Britain. He charged that there was also evidence Britain is being used as a jumping-off point for fighters en route to Chechnya (Reuters, Itar-Tass, November 15).

The latest wrangles between Russia and both France and Britain suggest the extent to which the Kremlin intends to use the cover story for its Chechen campaign–that is, that it is part of the battle against international terrorism–to blunt Western criticism of the civilian suffering being caused by indiscriminate Russian bombing in the Caucasus. The wrangles also suggest that, driven by the popularity of the Chechen campaign at home and its implications for the upcoming Russian parliamentary and presidential elections, Moscow may be willing to risk even more serious tensions with the West over Chechnya. Russian leaders may be confident, quite simply, that the West will itself not allow a full rupture in relations with Russia to occur because of Chechnya. But the strategy still seems like a risky one. Moscow could, for example, be endangering relations with France, which in some regards is a key ally in Moscow’s strategic battle for the construction of a multipolar world and a reduced American presence in Europe and elsewhere.