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Wednesday, November 3, 1999 Published at 20:47 GMT

World: Europe

America's new hard line on Chechnya

Russian soldiers may repeat the brutality of 1994-6, Washington believes

By the BBC's Russian affairs analyst, Tom de Waal

There is a growing consensus in the United States that the war in Chechnya is dangerous and counter-productive.

Battle for the Caucasus
That is in strong contrast to official American reaction to the last Chechen war, which President Bill Clinton generally supported.

In April 1996, he even compared Boris Yeltsin to one of his famous American forebears and his attempt to keep the country together:

"I would remind you that we once had a civil war in our country ... over the proposition that Abraham Lincoln gave his life for - that no state had a right to withdrawal from our Union.

[ image: Clinton has a new message for Putin]
Clinton has a new message for Putin
Three years later, the policy has changed and Mr Clinton's meeting with Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin in Oslo was dominated by the new war in Chechnya.

The American president expressed strong concern about civilian casualties and pressed Mr Putin to seek a political solution.

Thomas Graham, an American diplomat in Moscow during the last war who now works for a Washington think-tank, believes the US reaction this time has been tougher partly because last time it was too mild.

"I think the administration when it now looks back at that period feels embarrassed by its parallels between Abraham Lincoln and Boris Yeltsin, between what was happening in Chechnya and the American Civil War," he said.

"And that has inclined the administration to be very forceful, very tough in public this time around. There are fears that what Russia is doing in Chechnya now will approach the brutality of the war of 1994-96."


The Russian authorities have been trying to win Western support by depicting the campaign as a battle against international terrorism. But that message has been met with scepticism in the US.

The Chechen writer Lyoma Usmanov, who has taken it on himself to represent Chechnya in Washington, believes the Russians are no longer trusted in the United States, while his one-man mission is proving a success.

"The US government realised that right now the current Russian government, (Vladimir) Putin's government, has nothing to do with democracy, nothing to do with the problems of the Russian people," he said.

"This is the key reason why the American people and American officials don't want to support these war crimes against Chechen people."

Gore 'avoiding Putin'

[ image: Masked Russian soldiers man a cannon on a truck]
Masked Russian soldiers man a cannon on a truck
With presidential elections now a year away, Russian policy has become a big domestic issue in Washington.

The Republicans accuse Vice-President Al Gore of having given too much support to the Yeltsin administration. Mr Gore, a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, is now rumoured to be trying to avoid meeting Prime Minister Putin.

All that means, says Thomas Graham, that Chechnya is an opportunity for the White House to look tough on Russia.

"I think one of the reasons the administration is focusing on Chechnya now is that it wants to take attention away from discussion of corruption more generally in Russia," he told the BBC.

"This is obviously connected with American domestic politics. It is trying to shift the focus on Russia. But it is obviously also a reflection of the growing disappointment with what has happened in Russia over the last year and a half."

American policy on Russia has shifted from almost full support for Boris Yeltsin to growing antagonism. How Russia continues to pursue its latest Chechen war will now be a big test of a relationship gone sour.

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