Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 215

The stage was set in Istanbul yesterday for a war of words between Russia and the West over Chechnya during today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit. Russian President Boris Yeltsin arrived at the fifty-four-nation European security meeting yesterday vowing to convince Western leaders that their condemnations of Russian military actions in Chechnya are misguided. U.S. officials simultaneously told reporters that Western leaders, including U.S. President Bill Clinton, intended to press Yeltsin to end Russia’s bombing campaign in the Caucasus and to consider international mediation of the conflict. OSCE head (and Norwegian Foreign Minister) Knut Vollebaek, meanwhile, warned that Russia’s war in Chechnya would be a major issue of discussion at today’s summit and that it could complicate the signing of several key European security documents, including the amended Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty and the Charter for European Security (AFP, November 17).

For all the bluster voiced yesterday, however, there was little to suggest that today’s summit–and the bilateral talks among world leaders taking place on its margins–will produce any sort of serious rupture between Russia and the West over Chechnya. U.S. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, who is in Turkey with the U.S. president, indicated as much when he told reporters that the United States and its allies have little real leverage over Russia in the matter. He also said that Clinton was unlikely to press the Chechnya issue too forcefully during his meeting with Yeltsin today. Berger suggested that Western leaders will criticize Russia during the summit, but are unlikely to do anything more. He added that the statement issued by the OSCE participants at the end of today’s meeting is unlikely to include a passage condemning Russia’s actions in the Caucasus (AP, Reuters, Washington Post, November 17).

Yeltsin, meanwhile, arrived in Istanbul operating on the principle–one used consistently by Russian government officials over the past few weeks–that the best defense is a good offense. His most noteworthy announcement was one indicating that he had signed a draft law approving the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) prior to his departure for Istanbul, and that he was urging the Russian parliament to ratify it quickly. Yeltsin also said that he would urge all nations to follow Russia’s example (International Herald Tribune, November 18; Reuters, November 17).

Yeltsin’s announcement, and the timing of his action on the test ban treaty, was clearly aimed both at upstaging Clinton and at taking some of the focus off of the war in Chechnya. The October 13 vote by the U.S. Senate to reject the CTBT was an embarrassment for the U.S. president and the object of considerable criticism from abroad. Yeltsin’s decision to sign the CTBT, of course, does not ensure that it will be ratified by Russian lawmakers. But his move is likely to be applauded by summit participants today and to remind European leaders of their sharp differences with the United States over the CTBT. Indeed, the arms control discussions that are expected to be included in today’s Yeltsin-Clinton talks will probably also afford the Russians an opportunity to exploit uneasiness in Europe over another U.S. arms control policy: Washington’s effort to rewrite the ABM treaty while moving toward development of a limited national missile defense system. Russia has hardened its opposition to the U.S. proposals in this area, and has sought increasingly to internationalize the dispute by taking its case to the UN General Assembly and other international forums.