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Wednesday, 19 January, 2000, 13:51 GMT
Analysis: West quiet over Chechnya

russian troops Fierce battles are raging in Chechnya

By Diplomatic Correspondent Barnaby Mason

The Russian assault on the Chechen capital, Grozny, is attracting little public criticism from western governments which have in the past condemned the use of disproportionate force.

Battle for the Caucasus
A delegation of European parliamentarians from the Council of Europe is in the north Caucasus and was expected to visit a Russian-controlled part of Chechnya.

The bitter conflict which in December provoked a row at the European security summit in Istanbul has faded from diplomatic view.

For the moment western governments are leaving it to the Council of Europe, which promotes democracy and human rights, to voice low-key criticism.

The delegation has expressed concern at the suffering of innocent civilians but has also endorsed Russia's right to contain terrorism. The prospect of its being suspended from the Council was raised but later played down.

c of europe head The Council of Europe delegation is concerned at civilians' plight

Suspension would be taken by some as a signal that Russia had forfeited its place as a civilised parliamentary democracy.

But it is not a sanction with real bite; it could indeed be exploited by the Kremlin as demonstrating resistance to western pressure.

For its part, the Russian Government is taking care to stay diplomatically active to try to head off criticism: the Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, is expected to address the Council of Europe later this month; and the acting President, Vladimir Putin, has had telephone conversations this week with the German and French leaders.

putin The West is hoping Mr Putin will be a reforming president

Mr Putin expressed the hope to President Jacques Chirac that France would show greater understanding of what he called Russia's action to crush international terrorism and banditry.

But remarks like that emphatically do not imply any Russian flexibility.

The same day, the Chinese Defence Minister was in Moscow emphasising China's support for Russia's military campaign.

He voiced identical opposition to separatism and extremism - Islamic militancy, in other words, which looms large as a potential threat in Beijing's mind.

Russia is too important as a partner, potential rival and none too stable nuclear giant for the West to contemplate an open breach

The United States did raise a few Russian hackles by holding a meeting in Washington with the man the Chechens regard as their foreign minister. But it did not take part at the State Department and involved only lower level American officials.

To set against this diplomatic pinprick, western diplomats are emphasising the need to keep up contacts with Russia and consolidate strategic relations.

In the end, Russia is just too important as a partner, potential rival and none too stable nuclear giant for the West to contemplate an open breach.


The Russian presidential election due in March is also a factor inhibiting criticism, since western officials hope that the favourite, Mr Putin, will turn out to be a reformer, at least economically.

It would in short be a profound relief to the western powers if Moscow were to win enough of a military victory, without too many civilian casualties, for the Chechen conflict to fade out of the media spotlight.

Russia has made it clear that western condemnation will not change its policy; only military failure or intense domestic opposition could do that.

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See also:
18 Jan 00 |  Europe
Analysis: Russians learn from past mistakes
10 Jan 00 |  Europe
Can Russia win the Chechen war?
12 Jan 00 |  Europe
How Russia pays for the war
18 Jan 00 |  Europe
Analysis: Russia's suffering conscripts
17 Jan 00 |  Europe
Analysis: Chechnya making regional waves
13 Jan 00 |  Europe
Russia accused of war crimes

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