Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 221

Indeed, one of the more noteworthy aspects of the current tensions between Russia and the West over Chechnya is the relatively low profile role the United States has played in the confrontation. Prior to the OSCE summit, Washington had been a part of the general Western chorus condemning Russia’s “indiscriminate use of force” in the Caucasus and calling for the start of negotiations to end the conflict. At the summit itself, however, U.S. President Bill Clinton appeared to moderate his criticism of Russian military actions in the Caucasus by balancing his negative comments with expressions of sympathy for the difficult task that Moscow faces in Chechnya. Some Russian reporters covering the summit suggested that Clinton’s remarks had actually surprised European leaders, who were more categorical in their criticism of Moscow. A number of Russian news sources even interpreted Clinton’s remarks as evidence of U.S. support for Russia’s military operations in the Caucasus.

That pattern has continued since the summit. While European countries–and France in particular–have intensified their criticism of Moscow and pushed for an end to the fighting, U.S. condemnations have been more muted. In a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov yesterday, for instance, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reportedly raised U.S. concerns about the “indiscriminate damage” being done in Chechnya. But Albright apparently stopped short of linking U.S. aid to Russia–or U.S. support for IMF loans–to a moderation of Russian military policy in the Caucasus (Reuters, November 29). The Clinton administration’s mild policy stands in sharp contrast to calls by several Republican presidential hopefuls–including Texas Governor George W. Bush–for a halt to IMF loans to Russia until the bombing in Chechnya is halted. Even Democratic challenger Bill Bradley has suggested that the United States should use economic aid levers–he mentioned Export-Import Bank credits–as a way to pressure Moscow into ending the Caucasus war (AP, November 29).

Even as Moscow was fending off pressure from the OSCE, however, it found itself fighting on another diplomatic front. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan yesterday urged Security Council members–of which Russia is one–to be more willing to prevent wars and to intervene in cases where human rights violations were occurring. The admonishment by Annan, which reprised a September speech he gave before the UN General Assembly, was in fact another statement in favor of the principle of humanitarian intervention by the world community in instances where governments are badly abusing their own people. Moscow opposes that principle in general on the grounds that it undermines considerations of national sovereignty and can constitute interference in the affairs of a sovereign state.

The issue of humanitarian interventions was certainly significant to Moscow back in September when Russian (and Chinese) diplomats were still looking to rally international public opinion against NATO’s earlier military intervention in Yugoslavia. The diplomatic stakes for Moscow are now considerably higher, given mounting international criticism of Russia’s war in Chechnya and the fact that Moscow’s indiscriminate bombing of civilians is generating exactly the sort of concerns that underlay the principle of humanitarian intervention. With such considerations in mind, Russia reportedly joined China yesterday in cautioning Annan against pushing the practice of humanitarian interventions. Moscow and Beijing argued instead that the Security Council must be guided by the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of any sovereign country (AP, November 29).