The cost of thaw in US-Russia ties

Dismissing Chechnya, NATO's chief signed a deal with Russia's leader Feb. 16.

A new pragmatism is ending the mini-cold war that began last spring between Russia and the West. Moscow's acceptance last week of a NATO olive branch makes clear just how far both sides will go to avoid confrontation.

It appears the West has decided to forgive Moscow its human rights abuses in Chechnya, while Russia will transcend nationalist pressure so the two sides can stay engaged.

The chill began last spring when Russia froze relations with the Western military alliance to protest its three-month bombing of Yugoslavia over Kosovo. It deepened when NATO criticized Russia for using excessive force in its fight against Chechen separatists in recent months.

But the thaw agreed to last Wednesday between Russia's new leader, Vladimir Putin, and NATO's new chief, Gen. George Robertson, heralds a renewal of the strategic partnership.

General Robertson's courting visit was a strong signal to Acting President Putin that he can do as he likes, if, as expected, he is confirmed in the March 26 election.

The nuclear factor

Forget that Putin has muzzled the press in his six weeks in power. Look past the United Nations' and European Union's condemnations of the Chechen campaign, which has driven some 250,000 refugees into neighboring regions. What is important is that the West does not want to alienate a Russia with thousands of nuclear warheads, analysts say.

For his part, Putin has overridden the objections of Russian generals hostile to NATO's eastward expansion. Russia's new leader appears to be indicating he acknowledges the importance of Western help to develop his country's dilapidated economy.

"Neither side wants serious conflict," says Pavel Ivanov, an analyst at Moscow's National Security and Strategic Research Institute.

"First we will finish the war in Chechnya. Then America will elect its next president. Over the coming year we will find out how to develop relations with NATO because these relations are so important to both of us," he says.

No one expects an end to upsets in their intrinsically rocky relationship, however. This former superpower will always resent NATO for its adoption of former Soviet satellites. The agreement signed last week - working toward a peaceful, undivided Europe - could easily fall apart.

More important, Putin has yet to show what he intends by increasing military spending and unveiling a new security doctrine that broadens the Kremlin's authority to use nuclear weapons.

These very same weapons are driving the West to push for enhanced dialogue. President Clinton in particular is keen to leave office with an arms-control deal that has so far proved elusive.

Washington is frustrated by the foot-dragging of Russian parliamentarians, who have so far refused to ratify the 1993 START II strategic arms treaty. Their reluctance is due in part to concern over Washington's desire to modify the 1972 Antiballistic Missile treaty, which is a keystone in arms control.

The sense of urgency is growing, and Washington is pushing for a summit as soon as Putin is inaugurated. As a sign of intensifying dialogue, Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov left for Washington last week.

This focus on greater engagement leaves little room for sanctions over Chechnya. Washington's attitude seems to be to leave the criticism to human rights groups. Notable was the muted concern voiced by the administration at the disappearance in Russian military hands of Andrei Babitsky, a reporter in Chechnya for US-funded Radio Liberty.

'Don't hold relations hostage'

Former Defense Secretary William Perry applauds the "softly, softly" approach. "I regard US-Russian relations as the most important security issue today," he said during a roundtable discussion in Moscow on Feb. 16. "I don't think they should be held hostage [to differences over Chechnya]."

The only lever the West can wield on Chechnya is economic, and it has failed to do that effectively. The International Monetary Fund delayed releasing more money to Russia, reluctant to fund the Chechen war. But a different message was sent on Feb. 11, when the London Club of private creditors agreed to forgive $1.6 billion of Russia's Soviet-era debt. The London Club also agreed to postpone repayment on the remaining $21.2 billion until 2008.

This is a sign Russia has bounced back from the financial crisis of 1998-99, when it defaulted on $40 billion in debt.

Moscow is hoping the London deal will inspire a similar agreement with the Paris Club of governmental creditors, to which it owes $40 billion in Soviet debt.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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