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Russia: Kremlin's Diplomatic Offensive On Chechnya Raises Alarm Bells

  • Jeremy Bransten

As Russia redoubles its military efforts in Chechnya, the Kremlin has launched a parallel diplomatic offensive, demanding that the world, and especially Europe, recognize Moscow's war in the separatist republic as a war against terrorism. Will President Vladimir Putin succeed in this bold policy, or does he risk imperiling relations, especially with Europe?

Prague, 8 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has seized on last month's hostage taking by Chechen militants to launch a new policy that promises to combine aggressive military action along with a diplomatic offensive aimed at forcing the international community to side with Moscow in its battle against Chechen separatists.

Taking inspiration from the policies of U.S. President George W. Bush, the Russian government has let it be known that in its view, there can be no middle ground: Chechen separatists are terrorists who must be liquidated, and foreign countries that do not fully share Moscow's view -- or that express any qualms about a military solution to the conflict -- are abetting terrorism.

European countries, some of which currently host or have hosted Chechen representatives, have borne the brunt of Moscow's diplomatic onslaught. Denmark, the venue for a recent World Chechen Congress, incurred Moscow's deepest wrath.

But many other countries have also found themselves on Moscow's "hit list." The Kremlin this week accused state-run Czech television of supporting terrorism because the station aired a documentary on the conflict. Moscow has taken more serious retaliatory action against other states, such as Norway, which defended Chechen representatives' right to meet in Denmark, and the Netherlands, which considered allowing a similar gathering.

Stephan de Spiegeleire, a Russia analyst at the RAND Europe think tank, explained. "The diplomatic offensive that has been launched is quite extraordinary by Putin standards -- especially towards the Europeans -- with some real threats towards Denmark but also other countries. [He demonstrated this] by the cancellation of a number of trips, by forcing the European Union to change its venue for the Russia-EU summit that's supposed to take place next week from Copenhagen to Brussels, by downgrading a visit to Norway from a state visit to a working visit, canceling the Denmark visit, [and] canceling a Holland visit. It seems to me that especially towards the Europeans, Putin has decided to go all out," de Spiegeleire said.

Coming on the eve of the planned EU-Russia summit, de Spiegeleire said Moscow's tactic may also be aimed at winning concessions on another key issue. "There might also be another reason to be so hard on the Europeans. We do have this Russia-EU summit coming up next week, and one of the biggest issues there is still Kaliningrad, where the European Council has approved the proposal of the European Commission to have sort of 'ersatz' visas introduced for citizens of Russia who want to visit Kaliningrad and vice versa. Now the Russians are not very happy with that, so it may seem that Putin has decided that he has very little to lose with the Europeans and that he is trying to play hardball on a couple of issues, but from what I gather, this is going to backfire," de Spiegeleire said.

De Spiegeleire believes that Europe's initial compromises in the face of Russian demands, such as the unprecedented agreement to move the EU-Russia summit venue to Brussels, or the EU's announcement this week that it will grant Russia its long-sought status as a market economy, are being misinterpreted by Moscow as the start in a long string of potential concessions. If the Kremlin continues to push, he said, it may risk harming relations. "On the Russian side, it's clear that Putin has decided to go all out and to milk Chechnya for all it's worth, and I think the initial reactions from the European capitals might lead him to think this strategy is actually successful, because a lot of European countries have given in on some smaller issues. But I think he's very badly mistaken if he thinks that this initial softer response will also translate into real policy concessions on either Kaliningrad or on Chechnya," de Spiegeleire said.

De Spiegeleire said the political capital Russia has accumulated in Europe remains limited. Moscow's war in Chechnya is perceived negatively by European public opinion. Europe has already voiced somewhat muted criticism of the U.S. "war on terrorism," but if Moscow copies this tactic, de Spiegeleire believes it will be denounced much more forcefully. Postponed visits can be diplomatically ignored, but if Moscow makes good on its threat to launch preemptive, out-of-territory strikes against perceived terrorist groups, or if the Chechen war takes an even bloodier turn, European politicians -- goaded by public opinion -- will not be able to keep silent.

De Spiegeleire said: "It's one thing to swallow your pride and say visits won't take place, we'll reschedule them, we'll do them some other time. But the continued, indiscriminate use of military force and the self-avowed admission that military forces should stay in Chechnya, that a military solution should be pursued, which is automatically perceived in Europe as a downgrading of the political solution, that's not something that Europeans take to very easily, including Germany. Chancellor [Gerhard] Schroeder is in a [difficult situation] himself on the foreign-policy front, so I don't think he wants to go too far with this, but I do think this whole Chechen issue plays badly in European public opinion," de Spiegeleire said.

The gulf between perceptions in Europe and Russia over the Chechen issue becomes apparent when speaking to Russia-based analysts. Sergei Markov, a leading political scientist, heads the pro-Kremlin Institute for Political Studies in Moscow. He said the idea that separatist Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov was elected in free elections is a myth, since many ethnic Russians did not participate in the poll and a range of pro-Moscow candidates were excluded. "In my opinion, talks with Maskhadov are essential, but they can take place only with Maskhadov as a field commander. And I would like people to understand that pressuring Moscow to have talks with Maskhadov as the elected president of Ichkeria [Chechnya] is a total dead end," Markov said.

Markov acknowledged that the Kremlin at this point appears unwilling to consider talks with Maskhadov even as a field commander, but he argues that in time, Moscow could be persuaded to change its position -- under the condition that Europe stops acknowledging the Chechen separatist and his envoys as legitimate political representatives. "The Kremlin has made the decision that it is angry and it does not want to hold talks with Maskhadov. But if European public opinion fully delegitimized Maskhadov as a president, then the ground for talks with Maskhadov as a field commander would be set," Markov said.

Markov ascribed negative perceptions of Russia among Europeans to foreign media, which he said continue to present a subjective, negative, and sensationalist picture of life in his country. "There is a lot of work to be done here. Any foreigner who has been to Moscow will confirm that the true image of Russia is significantly better than the image of Russia painted in the world media. Practically all politicians, businessmen, [and] cultural figures speak about the gulf between the image of Russia in the world's media and the true situation," Markov said.

Markov is convinced that the Russian authorities' handling of the hostage situation in Moscow has and should earn President Putin broad praise, despite what he acknowledged are "negative aspects." "Of course, the operation to rescue the hostages had positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, as you know, more than 80 percent of the hostages were rescued, and this is considered a colossal success. As the press has noted, practically all of the world's special forces have sent their representatives to Moscow in order to study how the hostages were rescued, because from the point of view of special forces around the world, this was an unprecedented success. Another issue is the behavior of the authorities after the release of the hostages," Markov said.

But the truth is that in Europe, despite an appreciation for the unenviable choice Putin was forced to make, the lethal outcome of the Russian hostage rescue, in which some 120 people were killed by an overdose of gas and the subsequent refusal by the authorities to reveal the nature of the poison, led many commentators and politicians to speak of a tragedy rather than an unqualified triumph.

The Kremlin's subsequent decision to redouble its military operations against the Chechens prompted Germany, whose Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder only a few months ago expressed "understanding" for Russia's war against the separatists, to do an about-face. As a barometer of where European-Russian relations are headed on the issue, analyst de Spiegeleire said there could be no clearer warning signal. "Germany, a very big player within the European Union, has insisted that the issue of Chechnya -- and not just the link with international terrorism but also how to get out of this issue through political means -- be put on the agenda of the Russia-EU summit. So it looks like we're heading for a really difficult Russia-EU summit," de Spiegeleire said.

European public opinion has reacted with skepticism to the need for a global war on terrorism to be carried out principally by military means, and the continent's politicians clearly reflect this view. While the Russian and U.S. governments may increasingly be reading from the same book, Europe, for better or worse, appears out of step. And attempts to force the issue, according to Europe's pundits, could eventually lead to a backlash.