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Russia: Seeing The Chechen War Through Moscow's Eyes

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently portrayed Moscow's war in Chechnya as a struggle against terrorism. Up to now, that view has not been shared by Western governments, which have criticized Russia for its alleged indiscriminate use of force against civilians. But yesterday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder hinted that it might be time for the West to reassess its attitude toward the conflict. While not going as far as Germany, the U.S. State Department also softened its statements on the issue. Will the West now make common cause with Russia?

Prague, 26 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It was the Germans who coined the term "realpolitik" to define politics based on pragmatism rather than idealism.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder appeared to reaffirm that notion yesterday during a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Schroeder said it is time for the West to apply a "more differentiated" approach to Chechnya than at present, recognizing that Russia is also battling terror in the breakaway republic.

"Regarding Chechnya, there will be and must be a more differentiated evaluation in world opinion."

Schroeder's words came after Putin's address to the German parliament, in which the Russian leader offered the West a new partnership with Moscow to combat terrorism, in the wake of this month's attacks against the United States.

The trade-off appears clear: The West needs Russia's help to launch an effective war on terrorism, and Russia is willing to offer that help if criticism of its actions in Chechnya is hushed.

Oksana Antonenko of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies puts it this way:

"It is quite clear that Russia is looking at the moment for some sort of bargain under which the U.S. and European criticism towards its actions in Chechnya is going to be re-evaluated, if one can say so -- muted -- in exchange for more Russian cooperation in the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism."

Frank Umbach, a senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, concurs:

"There is a certain bargain today. To build up and maintain a coalition for the forthcoming military attacks in Afghanistan and maybe some other countries, such as Iraq, we certainly need Russia at our side or at least not being an open opponent of our policies."

But Umbach faults Schroeder for making such an open declaration of support for the Russian position, saying it blurs the important distinctions between how Russia is fighting its war in Chechnya and how the West fights its own battles.

"The wording of our chancellor was not very fortunate, in my view. There was certainly a need for giving Putin an answer and also calling for closer actions between the West [or] between Germany and Russia, in coping with international and fundamentalist terrorist threats. But at the same time, I think there is a danger of mixing things up whereas there are still a lot of differences in the Russian and Western approach."

"The use of armed forces in itself is not a strategy. On the Western side and on the German side, it was always part of a long-term political strategy involving also political concepts and economic concepts for resolving those problems in a long-term way. That is the reason why, besides the use of our armed forces in Yugoslavia, we have created a so-called Stability Pact, which is addressing the roots [of the problem] and seeking a long-term solution by acknowledging that a military strategy in itself is useful for containing such a conflict. It's useful also for forcing the aggressor side to go back to the negotiating table and find a political solution. But it's not a tool for finding a political solution in itself."

Michael Emerson, senior research fellow at the Brussels-based Center for Foreign Policy Studies, is less critical of Schroeder. He tells RFE/RL that the German chancellor should not be accused of abandoning humanitarian principles in favor of political expedience.

"I wouldn't put it like that, because the war against big international terrorism, that is, of course, a human rights and humanitarian issue of the first order. The question is whether European happiness over how Russian forces behave in Chechnya is a reason not to go ahead with a substantially enhanced cooperation over global terrorism. I think the answer to that is: This is, indeed, a new situation."

Emerson says both sides have much to gain in this new era:

"There's a whole agenda of actual or potentially reinforced cooperation ranging from trade, energy, environment, through to these security concerns. What this situation now means is that there's a top-priority security issue that can become a major mechanism of cooperation, whereas the security agenda until now has been a bit roadblocked by the NATO question."

And so, it appears, the West's concerns about the situation in Chechnya will take second place. Emerson also notes that concern expressed by the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and European governments over alleged abuses by Russian forces in the republic has not translated into admiration or sympathy for Chechnya's self-styled leaders.

"I don't think there's much -- if any -- sympathy lobby for the Chechens in Western Europe. Even before the war -- the first and the second Chechen war of the '90s -- it was evident to those who observed Chechnya that the regime was utterly repulsive, completely criminalized, and completely ruthless. And so Chechnya hasn't got any other good marks, as it were, recently."

Thus, Chechnya's own internal political situation may be another reason Western politicians are becoming more inclined to view the conflict in the republic through Moscow's eyes. More will become clear when the EU and Russia hold their next summit, in Brussels, on 3 October.

(NCA's Bruce Pannier contributed to this report.)

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