As the threat of a full-blown humanitarian crisis in Russia’s Caucasus loomed ever larger, calls grew louder in the West for a negotiated end to the conflict. During a two-day summit meeting of world leaders in Oslo on November 2-3, Putin was grilled by European and U.S. leaders over Russian policy in Chechnya. The Russian premier, who was standing in yet again for ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin, was urged both to start immediate talks with the Chechen leadership and to allow Western aid organizations into the Caucasus to help the thousands of refugees there.
Putin did not budge much, however. The Russian prime minister continued to deny reports that Russian attacks had resulted in large-scale civilian casualties in Chechnya. He also maintained the now-standard Kremlin line that Moscow is involved not in a brutal crackdown against a restive ethnic minority, but in a war against “international terrorism.” The one-time spymaster also claimed that reports of civilian suffering in Chechnya, and of a looming humanitarian crisis, are all part of a well-orchestrated disinformation campaign being waged by Chechen rebels. He did, however, accede to Western demands for the dispatch of international aid experts to the Caucasus. That concession was tempered by his insistence–one not much appreciated in the West–that Moscow exercise the tightest possible control over any international aid operation that might ultimately be launched in the Caucasus.