Chechnya bombs threaten US-Russia 'engagement'

Amid Kosovo-style civilian flight, US takes measured tone to Russia,

The Russian bombing blitz to crush Islamic rebels in Chechnya appears to be putting the United States in a new foreign-policy bind.

The onslaught comes as Washington is striving to work with the Kremlin on issues critical to US security, such as arms control and nonproliferation. Anxious to advance those efforts and bolster Russia's stability, the US has also pledged to help it fight Muslim terrorists blamed for recent bombings of Moscow apartment blocks.

But such cooperation could become more difficult to defend as reports mount of Russian planes killing Chechen civilians in the hundreds, smashing schools and hospitals, and driving some 60,000 refugees into nearby republics.

US officials also worry the assault will sap Russia's badly strained finances, fuel Muslim extremism in the oil-rich Caucasus region, and trigger more destabilizing terrorism in Russia itself.

Should the bloodshed escalate and Moscow send in ground troops in a repeat of its disastrous 1994-96 war in Chechnya, US officials say it will be hard to do business as usual.

Hoping to avoid long conflict

"There is no question that if they are back to general hostilities in Chechnya, that is going to be a major problem for us," says a senior US official.

The crisis underscores the fine line Washington must walk in its "engagement" policy with Russia.

That policy emphasizes cooperation on US security interests and helping the world's second-largest nuclear power through its traumatic transition from authoritarianism to free-market democracy. But that means abiding Russia's economic and political chaos, policies opposed to US interests, epidemic corruption, and misconduct - such as the humanitarian calamity in Chechnya.

This difficult trade-off is reflected in the absence of any outright US condemnation of the week-old Russian bombing of civilian areas of Chechnya, a breakaway republic in the north Caucasus. Instead, Washington is cautioning against an escalation of fighting and urging the sides to "refrain from military actions" that could prevent a dialogue. The US position could be elaborated on by the administration's Russia point-man, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, in a speech he is to make tomorrow at Harvard University.

The current stance angers human-rights advocates, who say the US is ignoring massive Russian human-rights violations just as it did in the 1994-96 war.

"The Clinton administration is very laissez faire about what is happening in Russia," says Rachel Denber of New York-based Human Rights Watch. "It will take a strong interest only where human-rights violations have a major negative impact on US national security interests."

Some experts say the week-old Russian onslaught could give majority Republicans in Congress new ammunition with which to attack President Clinton's Russia policies. GOP leaders are now using a series of hearings into those policies and Russian corruption to ask the question "who lost Russia," with the aim of tarring Vice President Al Gore's presidential quest.

Is 'Clinton doctrine' for real?

The US view that the conflict in Chechnya is an internal Russian affair also raises new questions about the so-called "Clinton doctrine." Declared by Mr. Clinton during the Kosovo crisis and repeated by him at the United Nations last week, it advocates international intervention in major humanitarian crises. The administration clearly worries about all this. "There has been a lot of violence in the North Caucasus in the last couple of months," says an administration official. "The danger we see is that the escalation could lead to the worsening of that violence."

The Russian offensive was triggered by incursions into neighboring Dagestan in August and September by Islamic rebels based in Chechnya. Moscow also blames the rebels for the Moscow bombings that killed 300 people. The Russian offensive aims to force Chechen President Alsan Maskhadov to crack down on the rebels, who seek an Islamic state in the predominantly Muslim region. Russia says its aircraft and long-range artillery are targeting rebel bases and supply lines, but civilian areas of the capital, Grozny, and other towns have been hit. Russia has deployed thousands of troops on Chechnya's borders in what could be invasion preparations.

US officials and other experts are deeply skeptical of Moscow's strategy, which Russian officials say they adopted from the US-led NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia earlier this year. But US officials and experts say Russia lacks the precision munitions that NATO used in Yugoslavia.

The resulting destruction and civilian casualties, they say, will fuel anti-Russian hatreds lingering from the 1994-96 war that erupted over Chechnya's declaration of independence from the Russian Federation. Up to 80,000 people were killed, including as many as 29,000 civilians in Russian bombardments that leveled much of Grozny. Furthermore, they say, Mr. Maskhadov is too weak to take on the rebels. Finally, the underfunded Russian Army's equipment, troops, and morale are in far worse shape than they were when it failed to crush Chechen forces in the last war, forcing a settlement that left the republic's status undecided. Moscow can't afford the new conflict, they say.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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