Visitor Putin takes tea, no advice

On a brief trip to London April 17, Russia's new president wooed investors, stood firm on Chechnya.

The new boss of the Kremlin is signalling that he's in charge, and in no mood to take advice from the West.

Instead, Vladimir Putin clearly intends to dish it out.

In a 24-hour visit to London - his first trip abroad since election as Russian president on March 26 - Mr. Putin startled Prime Minister Tony Blair by launching an attack on what he termed the West's "interference" on breakaway Chechnya. But Putin, who like Mr. Blair is in his 40s, also presented himself as a youthful reformer, capable of restoring stability and prestige to the world's largest nation, and eager to encourage foreign investment.

His hard-line remarks indicate that when he meets President Clinton in Moscow in June, Putin will flatly reject criticism that Russian forces have violated human rights and committed atrocities in the nearly seven-month-old war against Chechen rebels.

And in three hours of talks with the British leader, Putin gave notice that Moscow would refuse to reduce its arsenal of nuclear warheads if the United States located part of its proposed antimissile shield in Britain.

At a joint news conference, a somber Putin said, "I consider that it was very important for us to inform one of the Western leaders of the position of Russia, connected on the one hand with the ratification of START II [arms reduction treaty], and on the other hand how we consider the US national missile-defense system and of those armed elements that have been deployed in various parts of Western Europe."

His comments were in line with the stance adopted last month, when the former KGB spy told Russian nuclear-weapons designers that their work was vital and said any country's place in the world was determined by its military might.

Martin Nicholson, Russian-affairs analyst at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, says Putin came through as "a vigorous, tough politician" determined to "try to seize the high moral ground on Chechnya and on nuclear issues.

"Putin sees the possession of nuclear weapons as a measure of political strength," Mr. Nicholson says.

"In terms of style, what we are seeing is a Kremlin politician of a younger generation, with the kind of vigor and focus we noticed when Mikhail Gorbachev made his first appearances in the West," Nicholson adds.

In a five-minute outburst that British officials later privately compared to the ranting of Soviet-era leaders, Putin told the April 17 news conference, "For Russia, it is completely untenable that one of its territories should be used as a launching pad for enemies of Russian statehood and sovereignty."

And in remarks that made the normally buoyant and smiling Blair wince, Putin warned European countries to "wake up" to the threat of "fundamentalist extremists on their borders."

Moscow blames Chechen insurgents for a string of apartment bombings in Russia last summer that killed 300 people. And in two incursions into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, Chechen rebels called for creation of an Islamic state in the Caucasus.

Putin went on to accuse European governments of failing to support Russian actions in Chechnya because, he said, they were "afraid of reactions among the Muslim inhabitants of Europe."

Ahead of the Putin visit, Blair had said he was inviting the incoming president to London in a bid to build "a bridge of understanding" with Moscow. To reinforce the goodwill approach, he included a cup of tea with Queen Elizabeth II on the Russian leader's itinerary. Putin kept the royal appointment, sweeping through the gates of Buckingham Palace in a Soviet-style, bulletproof black Zil limousine.

British officials were guarded about the tone of private discussions between Blair and Putin, but reports suggested that the British leader's hopes for a friendly chat were not fulfilled. At their press conference, Blair gave a hint of Putin's mood when he spoke of the Russian leader's "passion" and "deeply held belief" about what was at stake in the Caucasus.

Senior political analyst Hugo Young says that if Blair's intention was to call the shots, the Russian leader turned the tables on him. Putin took advantage of what Mr. Young calls Blair's tendency to try to "sweet talk politicians."

Young notes that the Blair government set out more than two years ago to pursue what it termed an "ethical foreign policy." But "with [Queen Elizabeth] enlisted to give tea to the butcher of Chechnya, we learn how far Mr. Blair will go to establish priorities that are quite different from those with which he apparently began," he says.

British Foreign Office minister Keith Vaz defended the visit as "opportune and welcome."

And British business leaders said that in a meeting with Putin, they found him a "man we can do business with."

After a seminar with the Russian leader, Digby Jones, leader of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said he was "encouraged" by Putin's statement that Russia is "a place in which business can invest."

Britain has hopes of investing heavily in Russia, lured by its vast potential and undaunted by the country's economic troubles and as-yet unsuccessful attempts to curb rampant corruption.

The Blair government is known to have seen Putin's visit as a way of giving British industrialists and investors a head-start over counterparts in Germany, France, Italy, and other European states. The CBI plans to send a business delegation to Russia in the fall.

Margot Light, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, says Putin's bid to "steal the show" from Blair in London on the issue of Chechnya underlines the problem of how to treat sovereign states accused of human rights violations. "Voicing moral disapproval can be a sanction," she says, "but in today's Russia, where anti-Western sentiment is running strong, stern words and actions can serve to strengthen the position of a regime."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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