Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 2

The Russian government is continuing to lobby the U.S. State Department to classify the Chechen separatist movement as “terrorist.” Last week the Russian news media highlighted remarks by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who said in a January 23 interview with the radio station Ekho Moskvy that the U.S. government was working out the details of adding several Chechen organizations to Washington’s official blacklist of terrorist groups.

By the weekend, however, it was clear that Washington had not–so far–given Moscow what it was seeking. In strikingly harsh language, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov accused the United States of “a policy of double standards” and of “Cold War recidivism.” In a January 25 television interview reported the next day by the Russian website, Ivanov said that “[i]n spite of our urgent insistence, we have not been able to get the American administration to agree that all the fighters who are now committing crimes in the Northern Caucasus, and particularly in Chechnya, should be added to the list of terrorist organizations–as has already been done with regard to many other similar organizations in other countries.” He added that the United States and Russia now have “a common enemy” and have agreed on how to define terrorism, but that they unfortunately clash on “political” questions such as the West’s attempts “to link the war on terrorism with human rights.” He said that such linkage is giving terrorists a “loophole,” allowing them “to hide behind slogans or demagogic reasoning.”

Possibly hinting at a more radical change in Washington’s position, Armitage gave what some saw as a “sensational” answer to the radio station’s question about whether the United States would accept “preventive strikes” by Russia in pursuit of “Chechen terrorists” fleeing into Georgia: A country that believes in preventive strikes, he said, would find it difficult to criticize such a position. This answer led the Russian daily Kommersant to seek clarification from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, which declined to comment on the record. But according to Kommersant’s account published on January 24, “in fact, as Kommersant has learned, the words of the high-ranking State Department representative caused real shock at the U.S. embassy. There was a similar reaction in Tbilisi. However, there they immediately attributed the whole thing to the Russian media: They must have misunderstood the deputy secretary of state.”

Kommersant suggested that “[i]t may well be, however, that Richard Armitage’s sensational statement was not a diplomatic blunder but was done deliberately” as an offer to trade, with the United States giving Russia a free hand in Georgia in return for Russia’s acceptance of an American war on Iraq. But the newspaper suggested that the situation had fundamentally changed since four months ago, when Moscow was pushing for such a trade and Washington was rejecting it: “[T]oday Russia’s relations with Georgia have stabilized and no serious Russian politician is now talking about pre-emptive strikes on Pankisi. And Georgia is divulging intelligence information on the situation in the gorge and on links between the gunmen hiding out there and al Qaida…. So in principle Russia does not really need America’s carte blanche today: It will not be bombing Georgia. And the United States knew this when it granted it. It is the United States itself that needs Mr. Armitage’s statement. By giving Russia carte blanche on Georgia (even if it does not need it), Washington is counting on a similar gesture from Moscow–this time in relation to Iraq.”