Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 203

Reports out of Oslo yesterday suggested that U.S. President Bill Clinton intends to use a meeting today with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to more forcefully emphasize Washington’s concerns over Russian military operations in Chechnya. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters that Clinton will express “his deep concern” over the continuing violence in Chechnya and Russia’s “indiscriminate use of force in the region” and be “fairly tough on Putin.” But the White House spokesman refused to detail which measures Washington might be considering to punish Moscow if the Russian government continues to disregard objections from the United States and other countries over Russian military actions in the Caucasus (Reuters, UPI, November 1).

To date, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has issued perhaps the strongest U.S. condemnations of Russia’s Chechen policy. Those have come in consultations with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and during a meeting on October 29 with visiting Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo. But Albright has admitted that her admonitions have had little effect.

Other U.S. officials, moreover, have, at least in their public statements, been considerably milder in their criticism of Moscow. Following recent talks of their own with Russian authorities, both U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott–who oversees Russian relations for the White House–and the U.S. ambassador to Russia, James Collins, have appeared to place greater emphasis on Russia’s right to deal with terrorism within its borders than on Moscow’s obligation to avoid civilian casualties. Admonitions of this sort appear to be at least partly the reason for assertions–made by Putin and other Russian officials–that Washington supports Moscow’s “antiterrorist” operations. Indeed, despite the mounting international criticism of Russian policy in Chechnya more generally, Russian officials of all stripes have continued to claim that Moscow enjoys the support of the world community on this issue. At least, that is what Russian officials are saying when they are not telling the West to mind its own business.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared to be in exactly that mood as he arrived in Oslo yesterday. Addressing reporters, he ruled out any political compromise with Chechen rebel leaders and vowed to “free” the Caucasus republic from their control. As other Russian officials have done, he also said that the conflict would ultimately be resolved by political means–the course urged by the rest of the world–but appeared to defer that day until after the military defeat of the rebels (AFP, November 1).

The tone of Putin’s remarks on Chechnya, which was certainly not unexpected, suggested that the Russian premier and the U.S. president might find little to agree about during their scheduled forty-five minute meeting today. They are expected to discuss, aside from the Chechen conflict, enduring and sharp Russian-U.S. differences over the ABM treaty and other bilateral issues.

The Clinton administration’s apparent unwillingness to take stronger action against Moscow if it continues with its military operations in Chechnya is reported to be the result of a complex series of calculations in Washington. Those include an effort to distance the United States from the Russian military campaign in the Caucasus without, however, alienating political figures likely to be in power following Russia’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Chechnya is likewise making it more difficult for the Clinton administration to win support for continued U.S. aid to Russia. Most important of all, though, the U.S. administration is reported to be worried that new setbacks related to the conflict in Chechnya–whether those might include military casualties or acts of terrorism–could provoke a nationalist backlash which would sweep hardline groups into power and undo many of the reforms which Russia has implemented up to now (Washington Post, November 1). Putin’s political brinkmanship–which involves escalating the war in Chechnya to raise his own popularity ratings–could make such a scenario a reality.