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Russia: Chechnya Policy Damages Relations With U.S.

The United States government continues to express concern that Moscow's ongoing military campaign in Chechnya could damage U.S.-Russian relations. Two leading independent scholars of Russia, meanwhile, say the damage has already been done.

Washington, 6 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In recent days, a pattern has emerged in the questions asked and answers given in press briefings at the U.S. State Department. Reporters ask what, if any, affect U.S. warnings to Russia on Chechnya are having. U.S. officials answer that Washington will continue to work on the problem and express the hope Russia will step back from what the officials term a "troubling direction."

State Department Spokesman James Rubin on Friday said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright continues to press the U.S. view nearly daily now with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Rubin described a phone conversation on Friday between Albright and Ivanov.

"She also made very clear in that conversation our strong opposition to a military solution, our concern that the costs of Russia's approach are rising, that there are high civilian casualties, there are refugee flows, and that there is the potential to harm the U.S.-Russian relationship if this path continues. She made that very clear to Foreign Minister Ivanov."

During a briefing one day earlier, Rubin heartily rejected a line of questioning that implied U.S. warnings to Russia about Chechnya were falling on deaf ears. Rubin said he believed some 200,000 refugees and displaced people who had gained freedom of movement following U.S. appeals to Russia would agree with him.

At the same time, Rubin acknowledged the U.S. has not had the same direct impact on the political front as it has had on the humanitarian situation in Chechnya.

Meanwhile, just one floor below the State Department briefing room at an open forum on Friday, two leading scholars on Russia strongly criticized the U.S.. government's Russia policy.

The Secretary's Open Forum speaker's program is designed to explore new and alternative views on vital policy issues not often given heavy attention in the media.

Anders Aslund, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar specializing on post-communist economic transformation, said he was most concerned by recent suggestions that negative world reaction to the war in Chechnya could put Russia's IMF loans at risk.

Outgoing International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Michel Camdessus has said the IMF will not be able to go forward with the second tranche of financing to Moscow, if the rest of the world does not want it to.

Aslund cautioned against what he called such a "rash" and "harmful" move.

"We (the U.S.) are spending a lot of our time and effort on small political issues and we are not getting any money out of this. This is simply taking far too much of our government's time and doesn't make sense for our country. So I think that this is an immediate crisis that is coming up. You may protest over Chechnya, but I think it is very unfortunate to use the IMF for that purpose because that has a lot of other repercussions."

Aslund ended his remarks by saying the U.S. had missed its window of opportunity to build a significantly better relationship with Russia and must now accept the loss and move on. The important thing now, Aslund said, is to avoid further damage to the bilateral relationship.

Celeste Wallander, a Russian studies and international affairs expert at Harvard University, for the most part supported Aslund's remarks. She said the United States had very badly managed its relations with Russia, particularly on the political and security fronts.

Wallander said the problems originated in her view when the U.S. began to rely on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as the most important political and security institution in the post Cold War world. She said as the stated premise from the outset of U.S.-Russia policy was integration, the U.S. should have better thought out how NATO could integrate Russia within existing or adapted structures.

Instead, she detailed how the U.S. has been pitted against Russia on many foreign policy situations ever since, as evidenced in Russian opposition to the NATO-led campaign against Yugoslavia over Kosovo, and Russian fears of a repeat in Chechnya.

"The initial premises of integration of Russia into the Western based economic, political, and security system and institutions remains possible and remains the aspiration of at least this Russian leadership. But in order to be able to realize that ambition and those premises which are still open on the Russian side, we have to understand we are at a turning point in how we manage the crisis in the Caucasus because this is perceived within the Russian security elite as a direct threat to Russia's most important core national security interest."

Wallander said Russia sees Kosovo as a disturbing indicator about what the West might attempt to do in Chechnya. She said the Russian view is that since NATO intervened over Kosovo on behalf of a mostly Islamic ethnic group embroiled in a conflict for independence from a central government without UN approval -- and against Russian warnings -- then why wouldn't the U.S. do the same in the Caucasus.

Despite what Wallander calls the numerous policy mistakes made in the past, she said there does remain a window of opportunity for U.S.-Russia relations. But she argues that U.S.-Russia policy must first move beyond what she called the "exclusionary" and "dismissive" policies of the past.