Russia still inconsistent

Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

President Vladimir Putin's announcement of Russian support for U.S. military operations against Afghanistan this week represented a significant step by his government toward cooperation with the West - larger, even, than it might appear at first to many Americans. To make that pledge, the Russian president had to override strong objections from his generals to the establishment of a U.S. military presence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, which are still regarded by Moscow as part of its rightful sphere of influence. It could be argued that Putin had little choice - U.S. forces would have deployed around Afghanistan with or without his agreement. Still, the Russian leader moved farther than he ever has before toward accepting what, in Moscow, is still a controversial notion: that Russia's best future lies in integrating with the liberal democracies and open economies of the West, and sharing in their wealth and security cooperation rather than trying to establish a competing center of power.

At the same time, Putin's speeches this week in Moscow and in Berlin show that his vision of a Russian-Western partnership is still far from what the United States could consider acceptable. While denouncing the attack on the United States and international terrorism, he blamed the failure to prevent it on the world's dependence on the "old security structures" of the Cold War - such as NATO. He called for a "comprehensive, purposeful and well-coordinated struggle against terrorism," but insisted it could only take place if it were conducted under an international security system restructured to give Russia more influence. While Europe's relations with the United States had "great value," Putin told the German Bundestag on Tuesday, Europe would be better off as "a powerful and truly independent center of international politics if it combines its own possibilities with Russia's."

In short, Putin would like to move his country toward the West, but do so in a way that constrains or rolls back U.S. leadership. He also hopes that his initiative will win the West's acceptance - or at least stifle its criticism - of his steps to limit Russian press freedom and democracy and his brutal military campaign in Chechnya. So far he seems to be succeeding; German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder could barely contain his enthusiasm, telling reporters that the West needed to "reevaluate" Chechnya and hinting that Russian membership in NATO should be considered.

The Bush administration cannot afford to yield to Putin so easily. Instead, it should push him toward a further change in Russian policy. On Monday, Putin gave Chechnya's rebels a 72-hour deadline to begin talks on disarmament with his envoy in the region, and he demanded that they "halt all contacts with terrorists and their international organizations." The statement suggested the possible onset of a major new Russian offensive against the Chechens, which Putin would insist be accepted on the grounds that some allies of Osama bin Laden allegedly have joined the Chechen resistance. But it also could be read as an acknowledgment that there is a difference between international terrorist organizations and Chechen rebels fighting for independence, and as an offer of negotiations with the latter - a step Putin has previously rejected.

On Wednesday the administration responded by supporting both the idea of negotiations and the isolation of the terrorists. President Bush said that he thought members of Osama bin Laden's organization in Chechnya should be "brought to justice"; but he also said Putin should respect "minority rights" and "human rights" in Chechnya. In the coming days Bush must hold Putin to the promise of peace talks. The Chechen leader, Aslan Maskhadov, responded to Putin's statement by appointing a negotiator. The United States should make clear that if Putin really desires partnership with the West, he must talk to that Chechen leadership.

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