The past fortnight saw the continuation of a general warming trend in relations between Russia and the West. But this new spirit of reconciliation, launched by both Moscow and the West in the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s appointment as acting Russian president, was tested by ongoing differences between the two sides on a host of specific issues. The key flashpoint remained Russia’s war in Chechnya. Western leaders seemed determined to mute their criticism of Russia in this area in area to promote broader cooperation, but the proliferating evidence of Russian atrocities in the Caucasus made this policy ever more difficult to sustain. As the fortnight drew to a close it seemed possible that Moscow’s recent military successes in Chechnya would permit it to open the region to Western humanitarian aid efforts and to observation by international human rights groups. Russian and Western governments probably both hoped that this would help ease tensions over the Caucasus war. But the obvious difficulties faced by Russian forces in whitewashing the effects of their operations in the region, not to mention the possibility that Russian military victories had only opened the way to a protracted guerrilla war, made any opening of the region to Western groups a politically risky venture for Moscow.
The divergent trends in relations between Russia and the West were evident in two sets of bilateral talks: those which took place on February 17-18 in Washington between Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov and Clinton Administration officials, and those which took place in Moscow on February 22-23 between British Foreign Secretary Robin and top Russian leaders. The Washington talks produced abundant rhetoric of improved ties between Russia and the United States. Ivanov reportedly carried a message from Putin underscoring the high priority that Moscow attaches to friendly relations with Washington. The message also argued that, despite recent differences between the two countries, Moscow and Washington continue to share a number of broader strategic objectives. Cooperation between the two countries, Putin suggested, was essential to maintaining international peace and stability. The two sides reportedly discussed a possible meeting between Putin and U.S. President Bill Clinton sometime before the July 21-23 G-7 plus Russia summit in Japan.
Yet Putin and his U.S. interlocutors appeared to find little common ground on specific issues. Reports suggested that Russia had again largely rejected U.S. efforts to amend the ABM treaty in order to proceed with the development of a limited national antimissile defense system. And, despite obvious efforts by the Clinton administration recently to downplay the importance of Russia’s war in Chechnya, sharp differences on this issue continued to erupt. The Russian government ripped Washington, for example, over a February 14 meeting between U.S. State Department officials and a visiting Chechen parliamentary official. Then, on February 18, Moscow lambasted a U.S. State Department spokesman for calling on Moscow to investigate allegations of Russian atrocities in Chechnya. On March 1 Moscow followed that up with a denunciation of a U.S. State Department report on human rights which again criticized Russian actions in Chechnya.