US toughens Chechnya talk but has little leverage

As strains grow between the US and Russia, American officials worry

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Relations between the White House and the Kremlin are becoming more tenuous with each Russian military advance into the lawless republic of Chechnya.

US officials were relatively silent a month ago at the start of the operation, which is aimed at crushing Islamic rebels. But since fighting drove more than 170,000 residents from their homes, and a rocket attack on a market killed more than 100 people, US officials have labeled the offensive "deplorable and ominous."

President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have at least 10 times directly urged Russian officials to stop fighting and start peace talks with the Chechens, an administration official says.

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The rift in relations threatens to isolate Russia internationally while it faces parliamentary elections, economic turmoil, and uncertainty about its nuclear defenses.

US officials worry that a total meltdown of relations could strengthen Moscow hard-liners, especially if today's conflict becomes a repeat of the 1994-96 Chechen war - a humiliation for the Russian Army in which about 100,000, mostly civilians, died.

The current conflict is not on that scale yet, but appears headed in that direction. The Russian Army, with strong public support, is strangling the Chechen capital of Grozny and blocking civilians from fleeing the region. Yesterday, Russian bombers swooped into the capital, killing 38 and injuring 100, Chechen officials said.

"This will certainly hurt our relations with [Russia]," says Marshall Goldman, a Russia expert at Wellesley College.

The conflict comes as US-Russia relations are already strained.

High levels of corruption in Moscow, exposed by the Bank of New York money-laundering scandal, have forced some here to question whether the International Monetary Fund (IMF) should continue to prop up the Russian economy. Also, Russia objects to US plans to build a missile-defense system and has threatened to counter by deploying more atomic warheads.

"We urge Russia not to repeat the mistakes of the past in Chechnya," Dr. Albright said this week, "and instead to open a dialogue toward a peaceful resolution with legitimate Chechen partners."

Russian officials justify their attack as a crackdown on rebels who in August launched an offensive into neighboring Dagestan and whom investigators blame for the September apartment bombings in Moscow that killed nearly 300 people.

Further, the US may have little clout, with Russians still upset about NATO's expansion to include former East bloc states and its bombing of their Slavic brethren, the Serbs, in Kosovo. The Speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament recently said the US has "no moral right to tell Russians how to settle the acute conflict."

Other than making harsh statements and repeated phone calls, America has few options to stem the offensive - which is likely to get more violent as Russian troops move closer to rebel strongholds.

"The policy of intervening to stop a humanitarian crisis cannot work with a nuclear power," says Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank here.

A US administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says it would be too risky to implement economic sanctions. A collapse of the Russian economy could lead to far greater problems.

"The truth is that we have limited options and leverage," says Tara Sonenshine, a former National Security Council official who is now a senior adviser to the Washington-based US Institute of Peace. "There are other countries and organizations that could have greater credibility."

The Operation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is scheduled to hold a summit in November, and the topic could be taken up there.

Some analysts say the OSCE could be the best organization to broker a deal between Moscow and Chechnya. It was involved in settling the earlier war, in which Chechnya won independence in all but name.

Human rights officials say the OSCE has a mixed record in the region. Of primary concern are some 170,000 displaced people, some of whom are being blocked from leaving Chechnya.

The US tactic with Moscow in this conflict sharply differs from the first war, when US-Russia relations were significantly better. Then, the State Department did not condemn the campaign until the invasion of Grozny at the end of 1994. Despite mounting civilian deaths, the IMF approved a $6.8 billion loan in 1995. And in 1996 Clinton likened the conflict to America's Civil War.

This time around, there is greater support for Russia, given the rebel incursion into Dagestan. Yet the Clinton administration has been quicker to condemn. One reason may be an attempt by the administration to deflect criticism for being too forgiving of Russia, analysts say. Vice President Al Gore, the leading candidate to be the Democratic nominee, has been deeply involved with Clinton's Russia policies.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the likely GOP candidate for president, has criticized the Clinton administration for not being tough enough on Russia.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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