Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 11

As is the case with domestic policy, commentators both inside and outside of Russia have suggested that the accession of the younger and more energetic Putin to the Russian presidency has resulted in a corresponding reinvigoration of the country’s diplomacy. That new assertiveness appeared to be on full display over the past fortnight as Moscow hosted a visit by an indicted Yugoslav war criminal and then denounced the international war crimes tribunal that had indicted him. Russian diplomatic aggressiveness was also manifested in accusations leveled by the Kremlin against a leader of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and in warnings issued by a host of Russian officials that Moscow is considering military attacks on bases in Afghanistan.

During talks with NATO foreign ministers in Florence on May 24, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov reportedly apologized for the visit to Moscow earlier that month by Yugoslav Defense Minister Dragoljub Ojdanic. Ivanov attributed the visit to some sort of mix-up between ministries within the Russian government and, in private conversations, reportedly revealed that the responsible Russian officials would be disciplined over the incident. Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and, as such, had an obligation to arrest Ojdanic, who has been indicted on war crimes charges by the UN tribunal in The Hague. Western diplomats were said to be shocked by revelations that Ojdanic had traveled to Moscow, where he not only held talks with Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and other top military leaders but also attended ceremonies marking Russia’s Victory Day celebration. News of the visit elicited a condemnation from The Hague tribunal and from some Western governments. It also raised new questions about Moscow’s adherence to international sanctions imposed on Belgrade.

Indeed, Ivanov’s claim in Florence that Ojdanic’s visit had been the result of a bureaucratic mix-up was anything but convincing. It suggested either that Moscow was trying simply to brush off international criticism of the incident or–less likely but equally disturbing–that renegade Russian defense officials had actually brought Ojdanic to Moscow without the Kremlin’s knowledge. In fact, it appears most likely that Ojdanic’s visit represented a calculated effort by Moscow to show its disrespect for The Hague tribunal and for Western policy vis-a-vis Yugoslavia more generally. Russian attitudes in this regard were highlighted in additional comments made by Ivanov while in Florence. The Russian foreign minister contested the legitimacy of the Hague tribunal itself and called it little more than a political instrument of the West. All of these actions appeared to signal that Putin’s Kremlin is moving to further strengthen ties with Belgrade and that Moscow may contest efforts by the West not only to isolate Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic but also to lend support to his political opposition.