President George W. Bush’s remarks at his joint press conference with Vladimir Putin closing their recent Camp David summit meeting largely gave the latter what he wanted on Chechnya. The U.S. president’s words were interpreted by mainstream news media, such as the Associated Press, as endorsing the Kremlin’s crackdown.
“Russia and the United States are allies in the war on terror,” Bush said. “Both of our nations have suffered at the hands of terrorists, and both of our governments are taking actions to stop them. No cause justifies terror. Terrorists must be opposed wherever they spread chaos and destruction, including Chechnya.”
Bush went on to use the phrases “human rights” and “free and fair elections,” but only in such a way as to avoid directly challenging the Putin administration’s claim to be pursuing those goals already. Indeed, Putin himself could have used Bush’s formulation without having to change one word: “A lasting solution to that conflict will require an end to terror, respect for human rights and a political settlement that leads to free and fair elections.”
An anonymous “senior administration official” interviewed by Ken Fireman of Newsday denied that interpretation, insisting that Putin would understand Bush’s words as an implied rebuke. “We wanted to raise Chechnya but we wanted to do it in a polite way,” said the official. “The president said terrorism is not justified, there are terrorists in Chechnya, and that is all true. But the conflict in Chechnya cannot be reduced to a fight against terrorists … Putin understood what he was hearing.”
But this official evidently failed to convince Fireman, who wrote on September 28 that Putin left America “with something of great political value to him: a statement from Bush largely endorsing the Russian view that Moscow’s bloody, brutal and seemingly intractable military campaign in Chechnya was a legitimate front in the war against terrorism.”