Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 78

Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin enjoyed a triumphant entry onto to the world stage this week, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair ensured that the Russian leader got virtually everything in London he could have wanted on a maiden visit to the West, and without having to offer anything substantive in return. Putin used the London visit as a platform from which to launch yet another aggressive defense of Russian military actions in the Caucasus, and to reiterate Moscow’s intention to tie observance of the START II nuclear arms reduction treaty–and past and future arms control agreements–to continued U.S. adherence to the 1972 ABM Treaty. In addition, he took advantage of a meeting with British business leaders to describe what he suggested would be a “new” Russian economy, one which would be more friendly to Western investment. His finale: taking tea with Queen Elizabeth II.

On the issue of Chechnya, Putin’s stony dismissal of Western criticism and strident defense of what Moscow would have the world believe is its heroic and misunderstood battle against international terrorism appeared to earn no rebuff from Blair. Indeed, some reports suggested that Blair, who had taken a considerable political risk in inviting Putin to Britain, looked distinctly uncomfortable as the two men faced reporters and Putin launched an unexpectedly ferocious defense of the Chechen war. Protests by human rights groups and pro-Chechen demonstrators, meanwhile, were less well attended than had been expected. Most reports put the number of demonstrators outside Downing Street at fifty to sixty. Blair was under fire in Britain for having hastened to invite Putin to London despite allegations of Russian brutality in Chechnya and the fact that the Council of Europe had only recently suspended Moscow’s membership for its misdeeds in that region.

Blair was described as conciliatory on the subject of Chechnya. He also continued to emphasize what has been London’s main justification for courting the new Russian leader–namely, that Putin’s election represents a golden opportunity for the West to mend fences with Russia and that engagement rather than confrontation with Moscow is most likely to bring positive changes on the ground in Chechnya. It is not clear why Blair believes this. Russian officials have generally been contemptuous of Western criticism of the Chechen war, in large part because Western leaders have made it very clear that they have no intention of putting any teeth into their condemnations. The result has been continued military action by Russian forces and no let-up to the bloodshed and suffering of Chechen civilians.

Moscow did offer a token concession–and some political cover–to Blair during Putin’s visit. It was announced in Moscow on Monday that an independent commission had been established to investigate allegations of abuse in Chechnya. Putin suggested that the agency had been set up largely to satisfy an earlier request by Blair, and the British prime minister appeared to be satisfied by that. The new commission, however, appears to fall well short of demands by human rights groups for an international investigation into alleged human rights abuses–and even war crimes–by Russian troops in Chechnya. Human rights groups have rightly charged that a purely Russian investigation will do little to turn up evidence of abuses. Russian military prosecutors have already largely dismissed the allegations against Russian forces, and Russian authorities seem likely to use the new commission–if it is active at all–to focus attention on alleged abuses by Chechen rebel forces.

Putin’s visit to London reflects an open effort by the British prime minister to position Britain diplomatically as a bridge of sorts between both Russia and the United States, and between Russia and the European Union. That policy seems to suit Moscow also. There have been intimations that Putin wants to focus on improving relations between Russia and Europe, but he appears to have turned away from Germany and France for the time being on the basis of their more vocal criticism of Russian actions in the Caucasus. Britain’s willingness to minimize the Chechen war in favor of courting the new Russian leader–not to mention some reported affinities between Putin and Blair–makes friendship with London an obvious goal for Russian diplomats (Reuters, AP, UPI, BBC, Russian agencies, April 17; The Independent, April 17-18; The Guardian April 18).

The Kremlin is also believed to favor London because of its close ties to Washington and a belief that it can act as a middle-man of sorts between Russia and the United States. But with regard to nuclear arms control, however, at least one report this week suggested that, in filling this role, Britain may not be intending to play junior partner to the United States. Blair suggested during Putin’s visit that he might be willing to mediate between Russia and the United States in resolving sharp differences between the two countries over the ABM treaty, U.S. missile defense plans and their connection to broader control negotiations. But Britain, like much of Europe, is itself deeply suspicious of U.S. calls for revising the ABM treaty–not to mention pressures by U.S. Republicans to withdraw from the treaty altogether–and is therefore unlikely to serve as an advocate for American views on this issue (Washington Post, April 18). And that in itself reveals the potential for Russia to sow discord in the Atlantic alliance by playing upon differences over the ABM treaty and U.S. missile defense plans, something that Moscow clearly hopes to do in the wake of the Russian State Duma’s recent ratification of the START II nuclear arms reduction treaty.