Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 176

President Vladimir Putin’s hint in his September 24 speech that he would negotiate with Aslan Maskhadov if the Chechen rebels disarmed within seventy-two hours may have been aimed at pre-empting criticism from the West for escalating the military campaign in Chechnya. It is worth noting that since the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, U.S. officials, including U.S. ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow, have continued to insist that Moscow should seek a political solution to the Chechen conflict and observe human rights standards. Lord Russell-Johnston, the chairman of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), put forward the same view in an interview published yesterday. Russell-Johnston, who in the past has more than once criticized Moscow for human rights abuses carried out over the course of its military operation in Chechnya, emphasized that PACE saw no significant improvement in the human rights situation in Chechnya, adding that the terrorist acts in the United States had not changed the assembly’s attitude toward the Chechen issue (Novye Izvestia, September 25). PACE will begin hearings on Chechnya tomorrow–the deadline for Putin’s ultimatum to the rebels–that are unlikely to please the Russian authorities. If the Kremlin is indeed planning to carry out a massive attack on Chechnya’s mountainous southern regions, where the main rebel forces are located, after the deadline passes, the Russian delegation at the PACE hearings may present Putin’s ultimatum as an attempt to find a humane solution to the conflict that was rejected by the separatists.

The Russian authorities may be calculating that the West in general, and the United States in particular, will sooner or later start to mute its criticism of Moscow’s military campaign in Chechnya for the sake of maintaining the unity of its coalition against international terrorism. That has not happened yet, at least not overtly. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday that “the principles of adherence to human rights” in Chechnya were “always important,” while U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated the official view that only a “political process” can end the Chechen conflict and that Washington would welcome steps by Russia to engage sincerely the Chechen leadership.” Boucher, however, also called on the Chechen rebels to break their alleged ties with Osama bin Laden (AFP, September 26). While few observers doubt that radical Islamist groups, including bin Laden’s al-Qaida, have been assisting the Chechen rebels, there has been debate inside and outside Russia over the extent of that assistance, with some observers saying they believe the Russian authorities have exaggerated the extent of that support for propaganda purposes. For his part, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who was in Brussels today for meetings with NATO defense ministers, said that Russia and the United States might act jointly against international terrorists, claiming that if the flow of arms, funds and mercenaries to the Chechen rebels could be cut off, the military operation could be ended in fifteen to forty days (Polit.ru, September 26).

Meanwhile, Kavkaz.org, the pro-Chechen rebel website based in Qatar, published a statement yesterday from Chechen rebel field commander Shamil Basaev regarding the impending large-scale U.S. military operation against Afghanistan. Noting that Afghanistan’s was the only government to have recognized the rebels’ declaration of independence from Russia, Basaev declared his support for Afghanistan’s people and its Taliban government. He said that the United States should observe one of the main principles of Western democracy–the presumption of innocence. Basaev echoed a statement he made following the September 11 attacks, expressing sorrow over the deaths of thousands of Americans. “We sincerely caution the United States against rash emotional steps and urgently appeal for restraint,” Basaev’s statement read. “Having started a war, America, sooner or later, after a year or after ten years, will want to end it. But it will not be a Vietnam War, from which it will be possible to withdraw. And will Muslims want to stop this war?” (Kavkaz.org, September 25; see also the Monitor, September 13).