Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 21

Moscow’s ambiguity on the subject of humanitarian intervention was apparently evident once again during Annan’s visit. Russian officials have appeared willing to give some backing to the concept–as long as acting on it is kept solely in the hands of the UN Security Council–apparently because that would help further Moscow’s self-professed goal of working to strengthen the UN’s international authority. Moscow has appeared simultaneously (and more often) to rule out humanitarian intervention altogether, arguing that it is a threat to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia has thus seemed to criticize NATO’s 1999 air war against Yugoslavia both because it was conducted without Security Council approval (a position which suggests that a properly sanctioned intervention would have been acceptable to Moscow), and, simultaneously, because, in Moscow’s view, the air war was a grievous violation of Yugoslavia’s sovereignty.

Russia’s bloody crackdown in Chechnya raises many of the same issues. Although, as a nuclear power and a permanent Security Council member, Moscow clearly faces no threat of foreign intervention, nations critical of the Russian war effort have tried to make it the subject of official debate in the UN General Assembly and on the Security Council. Russian diplomats have quashed these efforts, arguing that the issue is a purely domestic one for Russia and that foreign criticism represents interference in Russia’s internal affairs. They have also moved to sidestep charges that the Caucasus war is violating international human rights conventions–a charge raised indirectly by Annan in Moscow–with the now familiar claim that there is, in fact, no Russian war at all in Chechnya: It is simply a counterterrorist operation.

Russia’s war in Chechnya was the focus of attention during gatherings last week by both the European Union and the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (see the Monitor, January 28), not to mention during the UN secretary general’s Moscow visit. Whether it will remain the center of diplomatic attention this week remains to be seen. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrived in the Russian capital last night and will undoubtedly raise the issue herself. But she also reportedly wants to discuss key arms control issues, and may be prepared to mute criticism of the war in order both to boost those talks (though they have yielded no success to date) and to focus on building cooperative relations with the new Russian leader (AP, Reuters, January 28). Those, at least, appear to be the Clinton administration’s top priorities at the moment. Diplomats are also gathering in Moscow, moreover, for tomorrow’s multilateral Middle East peace talks. Although no breakthrough is expected, the talks could at least momentarily take the heat off Moscow for its military operations in Chechnya.