Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 40

Russian newspapers responded in a generally positive fashion last week to Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to host talks in Moscow with NATO Secretary General George Robertson. The February 16 visit appears to have come off only because Putin-backed pragmatists were able to overcome the objections of hardliners within the Russian government. Russian commentators suggested that the talks were important not only because they could open the door to better Russia-Western relations, but because they also demonstrated that Putin was capable of orchestrating political victories unrelated to the Chechen war. They suggested that the successful outcome of the talks were proof of Putin’s ability both to operate on the international stage and to rein in some of the same hardline generals whose prosecution of the war in Chechnya–and whose anti-Western rhetoric–helped fuel Putin’s political popularity in Russia. Several developments since February 16 have nevertheless served to underscore that the current rapprochement between Russia and NATO, and between Russia and the West more generally, remains tentative.

After the talks, Russian newspapers appeared to confirm that the outcome had hung by a thread until the last minute, and that there have been differences on the issue within both the Foreign and Defense Ministries. The Foreign Ministry leadership appears nevertheless to have favored the more pragmatic line, and one Russian newspaper quoted a senior NATO official as having said that the Russian Foreign Ministry had arranged for the visit while the Defense Ministry “never lifted a finger.” Newspapers also appeared to confirm that Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, a notorious hardliner who heads the Defense Ministry directorate for contacts with foreign militaries, had in fact been sent to Switzerland to get him out of the way. It was also suggested that developments on the eve of Robertson’s arrival confirmed the “assumption that the generals and their accomplices in the diplomatic corps, buoyed by public support for the war in Chechnya, are keeping up a policy of confrontation with the West, regardless of what their supreme commander-in-chief [Putin] might be saying” (Kommersant, Segodnya, February 17; Reuters, February 18).

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Russian newspaper Izvestia took developments a step further by suggesting that Putin’s backing for Robertson’s visit meant that “hawks” were now falling out of favor in Moscow. The visit reportedly also added further fuel to rumors that a shake-up in the military leadership could be looming, and that Ivashov’s own dismissal might also be forthcoming. Two other top Defense Ministry officials–Colonel General Vyacheslav Meleshko and Lieutenant General Nikolai Zlenko–were identified as possibly in line for Ivashov’s job. The newspaper concluded by suggesting that Ivashov’s dismissal “would be a clear warning to everyone at the “White House on Arbat Square [where the Russian Defense Ministry is located]: the time for militant rhetoric in relations with the West has passed” (Izvestia, February 18).

It was perhaps also no surprise that another leading Russian daily, Segodnya, looked at Robertson’s visit from a NATO perspective and suggested that it signified a show of Western political support for Putin. That view is hardly news of course, given the considerable amount of praise for Putin in recent weeks from Western capitals, particularly from the U.S. and British governments (see the Monitor, February 16, 24). Segodnya nevertheless concluded its piece with a warning to Western leaders that the visit may have been primarily a PR stunt by the Kremlin to further burnish Putin’s image before the March 26 vote. The newspaper suggested that the Kremlin could easily return to an uncompromising position toward NATO once the election is over (Segodnya, February 17). Another Russian newspaper said simply that the visit reflected a tacit decision by Moscow and Brussels to tame mutual criticism of NATO’s campaign against Yugoslavia and Russia’s ongoing war in Chechnya (Reuters, February 18).