Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 177

President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of support for the U.S.-led campaign is clearly causing some Western leaders to re-evaluate their governments’ stance vis-a-vis Russia’s military campaign in Chechnya. Both German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi yesterday stressed the need to “evaluate things differently” in relation to Chechnya, given the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, September 27). Russian observers have also noted what they see as a tacit shift in U.S. policy vis-a-vis the conflict in Chechnya following President Vladimir Putin’s agreement to support Washington’s campaign against international terrorism. Yesterday, for example, President George W. Bush declared that “Arab terrorists” associated with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization were operating on Chechen territory and ought to be “brought to justice.” While both Bush and his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, reiterated the traditional U.S. view–that the Chechen conflict must be settled by political negotiations and that the Russian authorities should observe human rights standards while carrying out military operations there–Fleischer said that the Chechen rebel leadership must “immediately and unconditionally cut all contacts with international terrorist groups, such as Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida organization.” Fleischer justified calling the Chechen rebels “terrorists” rather than “freedom fighters” by citing the testimony of State Department officials to Congress two years ago and the State Department’s human rights report for 1999, both of which stated that bin Laden had sent “trainers” to Chechnya (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, September 27).

The Gazeta.ru website wrote in commentary today that Fleischer, in essence, had confirmed that Washington always knew Moscow’s claims about the Chechen rebels’ international terrorist links were true, but failed to admit it. “Thus the representatives of Russia’s special services absolutely in vain exhausted themselves collecting evidence of bin Laden’s trail in Chechnya,” the website wrote. “The White House knew about this the whole time, but remained silent.” The website, citing the Reuters news agency, reported that the Russian government had presented evidence to Washington that at least 2,560 Chechen fighters had been trained in camps run by bin Laden in Afghanistan (Gazeta.ru, September 27). Meanwhile, a spokesman for Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov said that Fleischer’s demand that the rebels break off contacts with bin Laden and other international terrorists was “no problem.” The spokesman said nothing else, but his comment was interpreted to mean that there were no such contacts to break off (AFP, Gazeta.ru, September 27). Maskhadov has in the past come into conflict with more radical Islamist field commanders, including as Shamil Basaev and the Jordanian-born Khattab, who are said to have had contacts with bin Laden.

For its part, Kavkaz.org, a Qatar-based pro-Chechen rebel website reportedly set up by Movladi Udugov, who was once Maskhadov’s foreign minister but later lined up with the more radical rebel field commanders, today posted a commentary speculating that the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington were carried out by either Israel’s Mossad, “the international financial mafia standing behind the Euro and trying to sink the dollar,” or “certain international forces interested in starting a third world war (the military-industrial mafia, drug dealers, etc.)” (Kavkaz.org, September 27).