Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 23

Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday used the multilateral Middle East Peace talks which took place in Moscow to make a first appearance of sorts on the international stage. His address was a brief one, and was aimed at outlining in broad terms what Moscow apparently would like the world to think will be its foreign and security policies in the coming “Putin era.”

With that goal in mind, perhaps, the Russian leader was generally on his best behavior. Absent from his remarks–made to foreign ministers and other representatives from the United States, Europe, Japan, Canada and a number of Middle Eastern countries–was the anti-Western vitriol which has characterized much Russian commentary on the West in recent months. The speech was in fact perhaps as notable for what it did not contain as for what it did. There was no mention of Russian efforts to create a “multipolar” system of international relations, that is, one in which the influence of the United States and NATO is blunted and international power is dispersed among a handful of regional power centers. Nor was there any direct attack on U.S. global dominance, or any direct mention of the military threat which the West allegedly poses to Russia.

Some of what Putin said was expected. He highlighted ethnic conflicts and “aggressive separatism”–an obvious reference not only to Chechnya, but to Kosovo–as well as international terrorism, organized crime and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But, in an apparent effort to hitch Moscow’s wagon to growing dissatisfaction in the Third World with Western economic dominance, Putin also broke new ground–for Moscow at least–by warning of the threat posed by the growing divide between the world’s wealthiest and most impoverished countries.

Of equal interest was Putin’s decision to single out for comment Moscow’s objections to the notion of “humanitarian intervention.” That is the idea that the world community should consider intervening when governments are guilty of badly abusing portions of their own population. Given its problems in the North Caucasus, Moscow has never been comfortable with the notion of humanitarian intervention, but its earlier equivocation appears to be fading, with a harder line against the idea gaining the ascendant. During a visit to Moscow last week by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Putin reportedly underlined anew Moscow’s belief that principles of territorial integrity and national sovereignty should take precedence over humanitarian intervention (see the Monitor, January 31). He expressed that same idea yesterday. His remarks on this subject may have also been intended as an indirect rebuke to those in the audience who have criticized Russia’s crackdown in Chechnya.

Aside from that, Putin went out of his way to underscore Moscow’s desire for friendly relations with Europe. “Russia would like to be a stable, constructive and predictable partner in building a new Europe,” he said. But he also hinted at Russia’s enduring objections to NATO and its policy of enlargement, not to mention Moscow’s continuing criticism of last year’s NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia (a key example of the principle of humanitarian intervention). We “favor forming a stable, indivisible Europe built not on the [exercise] of force,” he said, “but on the principles of the United Nations [charter].” Finally, Putin made it clear that Moscow remains opposed to Washington’s proposed changes to the ABM treaty and repeated Moscow’s characterization of the 1972 accord as the “cornerstone” of all international arms control agreements (UPI, RIA, Itar-Tass, Russian agencies, February 1).

Putin’s performance yesterday appears to have been intended to show that the Russian leader, who is expected to be elected as president in March, is someone with whom the West can do business. It also appears to fit in with other more recent signals that, after a period of intense acrimony with the West over both the Kosovo and the Chechnya conflicts, Moscow is looking to at least begin the process of mending fences. That point was made yesterday by an unnamed senior Russian diplomat, who said that Russia wants to have good relations with the United States and the nations of Europe and Asia. “We need more understanding with the United States,” he was quoted as saying. “We need political dialogue. We need more dialogue” (UPI, February 1). Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, likewise, have reportedly gotten along famously during Albright’s two days in the Russian capital.