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2002 In Review: Putin Foreign Policy Not Seen As Harming Relations With The West

  • Gregory Feifer

It's been a big foreign-policy year for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who signed a nuclear arms treaty with Washington and set up a new joint council with NATO. While boosting ties with the West, Putin also courted American adversaries, including China, North Korea, and Iraq. Other moves to reassert Moscow's fading influence in the international arena caused some controversy, not least over Chechnya. But as RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer reports, the West is likely to overlook its squabbles with Moscow.

Moscow, 16 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to reinforce ties with the West in 2002, but relations were partially hindered by other policies that sought to resurrect Russia's diminished influence in post-Cold War global politics.

In addition to signing a nuclear arms treaty with Washington and setting up a new joint council with NATO, Putin shrugged his shoulders over what many say was the military alliance's inevitable expansion to former Soviet states in November.

But Putin put his foot down on issues concerning other former Soviet countries such as Georgia, evoking some consternation in the West. He also visited Beijing and extended economic ties to "axis-of-evil" states Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

The biggest bone of contention between Putin and Western leaders, however, is the Kremlin's campaign in Chechnya. The issue gained greater significance for Moscow following the hostage crisis in October, from which Putin emerged vowing to combat terrorism wherever it appeared.

Perhaps the most vivid example of Putin's personal engagement came during a European Union-Russia summit last month, when he shocked his hosts in Brussels by lashing out at a correspondent who had queried him about civilian casualties in Chechnya.

Putin called the Chechen rebels an Islamic threat to global civilization:

"The creation of a caliphate on the territory of the Russian Federation is only part one of [the religious extremists' and international terrorists'] plan. In fact, if you are following the situation, you surely know that the radicals are pursuing a larger goal -- they are talking about the creation of a world caliphate and the need to kill Americans and their allies."

Zbigniew Brzezinski was U.S. national security adviser to former President Jimmy Carter and co-chairs the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, a bipartisan private organization. He says Russia has been skillful in trying to win favor from both the United States and European countries, on the one hand backing the U.S.-led war on terrorism and on the other joining European Union states in criticizing Washington's unilateralism.

But Putin's conduct over Chechnya, Brzezinski says, did him no favors in the West: "His very crude and literally uncivilized conduct in Brussels on the subject of Chechnya certainly has done damage to his image."

Brzezinski says Chechnya is a visceral issue for Putin, who came to power in 1999 promising a quick victory over the breakaway republic. But he adds that Putin has tried to isolate the issue from the rest of his foreign policy agenda and realizes the West wants to downplay Chechnya in its relationship with Russia.

Robert Nurick, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, agrees Putin is trying to downplay the Chechnya issue, which is a potential area of disagreement: "At the moment, the signs are that European capitals and the United States alike have other priorities and therefore are playing down the Chechnya issue, or are at least inclined to do it."

But Chechnya forced itself to the center stage after the hostage-taking incident in Moscow in late October.

The president emerged from the three-day event stepping up claims that his campaign in the breakaway region is a part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. He vowed to intensify military efforts in Chechnya and to pursue separatists abroad.

After bitterly criticizing Denmark for allowing a conference including Chechen separatists to take place in Copenhagen, Moscow soon went after moderate separatist envoy Akhmed Zakaev. He was arrested in Copenhagen in November on a Russian request for extradition. Released earlier this month, he was detained again in London and is again awaiting possible extradition.

The president's tough bearing during the hostage crisis nudged up his approval rating at home to a record level of 83 percent.

The Carnegie Center's Robert Nurick says Chechnya is a "neuralgic" issue for Putin, but that his emotional and diplomatically rash outbursts on the issue do not necessarily reflect policy. He says the extent to which Chechnya will pose a foreign policy problem depends on other issues, such as how far Moscow will push for Zakaev's extradition.

By trying to override legal processes through tough bilateral pressure, Nurick says Russian officials may fail to understand their importance in the West.

Boris Kagarlitsky, director of Moscow's Institute for Globalization Studies, disagrees that Chechnya poses external contradictions for Putin's administration. He says Moscow's insistence that its war in Chechnya simply represents a front in the war on terrorism is a logical extension of domestic policy, which is far more important in the Kremlin's eyes: "Terrorism isn't something that gets in the way of running the country, something that hinders the development of the state. It is something that helps the state and is needed by it. The state needs an enemy. If there's no enemy, that's bad. So if terrorism disappears tomorrow, that would be a catastrophe for the Russian state -- I mean that seriously. It would spark the end of the state, with its collapse as it now exists. In any case, it would be the political death of all current politicians -- all of them, including oppositionists."

Kagarlitsky says Moscow and Washington essentially share the conviction that civilian casualties are unavoidable in the fight against terrorism. It is Western European public opinion that does not buy the argument -- and which poses Putin his greatest foreign policy problem on Chechnya.

Putin's stance on other issues in the former Soviet sphere also caused run-ins with Western countries.

Moscow insisted that Russians be allowed visa-free travel from and to Kaliningrad when Poland and Lithuania, which surround the enclave, join the European Union in 2004. After months of tense negotiations, Russia and the EU claimed success after inking a deal calling for the issuance of "facilitated travel documents" rather than visas. Brussels assured Lithuania that the agreement would not be contrary to its national interest.

Russia, meanwhile, loudly accused southern neighbor Georgia -- where U.S. military personnel are training local troops -- of sheltering Chechen refugees. Moscow threatened military actions and was accused of bombing Georgian territory.

This month, Russia stationed troops and warplanes in the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan. Some analysts believe that Russia is seeking to reassert its presence in Central Asia and to counter the stationing of U.S. personnel in the region.