Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 81

Comments by a top Russian general yesterday suggested that recent overtures from Moscow aimed at improving ties with the West may, in fact, not enjoy the enthusiastic backing of all elites in the Russian capital. Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, a notorious hardliner who heads the Russian Defense Ministry’s international relations department, used a meeting with lawmakers to launch a shameless attack on the West for allegedly trying to destroy “Slavic unity.” Ivashov also downplayed recent signals from Moscow that it is prepared to mend fences with NATO, suggesting instead that Russian military leaders have no intention at present to “unfreeze” relations with the Western alliance. Ivashov’s remarks raise questions as to the degree of control which Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin is actually exercising over hardline military leaders or, conversely, whether Putin himself shares the enmity for–and suspicion of–the West expressed by Ivashov.

In his remarks yesterday, Ivashov linked NATO’s 1999 air war against Yugoslavia, Western criticism of human rights abuses in Belarus and improved Western ties to Ukraine in what he alleged was a major Western conspiracy to split–and apparently exploit–the Slavic world. “A fight against Slavic unity is gathering pace,” Ivashov was quoted as telling Russian lawmakers. He suggested that Western attentions were focused on Ukraine in particular in order to turn the Russian and Ukrainian peoples against each other and to draw Ukraine into the West’s orbit. Slavs today will be able to survive, Ivashov said, only if they display “a high degree of solidarity.”

If that were not enough, Ivashov also leveled a series of charges at the United States specifically. Without elaborating, the Russian general accused Washington of deliberately stoking internal conflicts in Ukraine, of depriving Europe of its independence (by unleashing the Kosovo conflict), and more generally of using local or internal conflicts around the globe to further its own geopolitical interests. He also intimated that the West could unleash military actions against Russia over the North Caucasus just as it had done in Kosovo. And, without providing any details, he accused the United States of somehow being behind the current Russian conflict in Chechnya and of maneuvering by mysterious and unnamed means to thwart Russian military operations in the region.

On the subject of relations with NATO, Ivashov was just as outspoken, if not so outrageous. He downplayed the importance of NATO Secretary General George Robertson’s visit to Moscow on February 16, claiming that it in no way represented a breakthrough or an “unfreezing” of relations between Russia and the Western alliance. “We will not rush into NATO’s embrace,” Ivashov was quoted as saying. He also said that the reopening of a NATO liaison’s office in Moscow was still not on the agenda, and suggested that Russia-NATO talks would continue to be limited in large part to the international peacekeeping mission in Kosovo (Reuters, Russian agencies, April 24).

Ivashov’s remarks on this score appeared to confirm that there was indeed considerable opposition among hardline military leaders to Robertson’s February visit (see the Monitor, February 17), and that strong resistance remains within that group to any rapid improvement in ties with NATO. Ivashov’s remarks also raise questions as to whether Moscow is indeed prepared to engage NATO on a broad range of security issues, as had been suggested by Russian government and diplomatic sources following the Robertson meeting. It is worth nothing that Moscow cut off relations with NATO following the start of the alliance’s air war against Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999, and that, even after the end of the air war, Moscow limited contacts with NATO to issues related to the Kosovo mission. Ivashov appeared to be saying that, in this regard, little has changed in Moscow’s approach to the Western alliance. His remarks appeared to contradict reports dealing with a March 15 meeting of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (PJC)–the first in nearly a year–at which a broader array of issues were reportedly on the agenda (see the Monitor, March 20).

NATO will perhaps get a better measure of Moscow’s willingness to deal with it constructively during a pair of upcoming PJC meetings. On May 7 the chief of the Russian General Staff, Colonel General Anatoly Kvashnin, is scheduled to take part in a gathering of NATO and Russian chiefs of staff in Brussels. Kvashnin is himself reputed to be a leader of the hardline, anti-NATO clique within the Russian military establishment. Then, on June 9, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev is scheduled also to head to Brussels for talks with NATO defense ministers (Russian agencies, April 24). Sergeev has generally not been counted among the ranks of hardliners, but this has not stopped him from making a number of stridently anti-NATO and anti-Western statements over the past year.

What is of particular interest about Ivashov’s remarks yesterday is what they may indicate about relations between the Russian military command and President-elect Vladimir Putin. During the runup to Robertson’s February visit to Moscow, Ivashov had appeared to spearhead an effort by hardliners to abort the visit altogether. At the close of his stay in the Russian capital, however, Robertson strongly suggested that it was Putin himself who had stepped in and ensured that the visit took place and that NATO-Russian relations got a much-needed boost. Indeed, Ivashov was sent to Switzerland during Robertson’s visit, a move which most observers interpreted as a direct action by Putin to get the cantankerous general out of the way.

Since his election victory, however, Putin has not moved to shake up the personnel of the military high command, as many had expected he might. This has been interpreted by some as an indication that Putin is most interested in maintaining stability within the defense establishment. Yet the failure to move may also indicate a wariness by Putin to confront divisions within the defense hierarchy, or to make a choice between hardliners and (relatively) more moderate elements. A choice for the latter would probably have left Ivashov relegated to the sidelines. That he is still head of the Defense Ministry’s foreign relations department–and able to speak out as he did yesterday–suggests that the hardliners continue to wield some influence. Whether that defiance is being wielded in defiance of Putin remains to be seen, however. It was noteworthy that another hardline Russian general, Gennady Troshev, said on Sunday that any negotiations with Chechen rebel leaders would be a “betrayal” of the Russian army (AFP, April 24). Troshev is the commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, and his comment–coming amid reports that Putin is considering negotiations with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov–raises at least the possibility of dissatisfaction among those hawkish generals on whose back Putin rode to power.