Time To Act On Chechnya

By David J. Kramer
Source: Chicago Tribune
Date: August 22, 1996


Despite the claim last month by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott that Boris Yeltsin's recent victory in the Russian presidential election was "an affirmation--I'm tempted to say a vindication--of (the Clinton) administration's policy of support of engagement for Russian reform," the administration should feel ashamed--not vindicated--when it comes to Chechnya. Keeping quiet or voicing little criticism for the past 20 months while more than 30,000 people have been killed in the fighting is nothing to gloat about. Moreover, the administration's quiescence betrayed the many true Russian democrats who opposed their government's brutal policy in this breakaway region.

The day after Yeltsin ordered troops into Chechnya, President Clinton declined to criticize the move, saying the Chechen crisis was an "internal affair." "We hope that order can be restored with a minimum amount of bloodshed and violence," he told reporters. "That's what we have counseled and encouraged." The White House did not directly criticize Russian military actions in Chechnya until Dec. 29, 1994, more than two weeks after troops launched their bloody assault. Then-State Department spokesman Mike McCurry compared the situation in Chechnya to the American Civil War. Such a comparison, which was widely and rightly condemned, was not uttered again by U.S. officials--until, that is, Clinton repeated it at April's summit meeting in Moscow with Yeltsin sitting right next to him.

Since then, and particularly after the Russian presidential election, the State Department has been more vocal in its criticism of Russian military actions. The Senate, too, has weighed in by passing a "sense of Congress" resolution that condemns Russian violations of the cease-fire and calls on the Russian government to end the fighting. On a visit last month to Moscow, Vice President Al Gore expressed U.S. concerns about the situation, though his message was undercut by the fact that half the cabinet accompanied him on the trip to sign deals with the Russian government.

Despite valiant efforts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to negotiate a settlement in Chechnya, full-scale fighting in the region has resumed. With no signs of resolution in sight, it is time for the United States to get involved in trying to mediate a lasting cease-fire and mutually acceptable conclusion to this deadly conflict. President Clinton, after consulting with President Yeltsin, should designate a respected diplomat (retired or active) and present that person as mediator to both the Russian and Chechen sides. This diplomat, with strong American backing, would carry more weight than the relatively anonymous--though extremely brave--OSCE team in Chechnya now.

Russian officials are likely initially to reject American involvement as interference in their country's internal affairs. That is, after all, how they reacted to OSCE offers to mediate the crisis a year ago without direct American involvement. But the Clinton-Yeltsin relationship is solid enough that the U.S. should raise with Moscow the idea of getting more directly involved, and doing so through the OSCE--an established channel for mediation--would mitigate the inevitable criticism that this constitutes American interference in Russia's affairs.

As for the Chechens, they are diverse and lack a strong leader around whom to unify. They also feel abandoned by the West and would suspect the U.S. of bias. Nevertheless, they as a group would gain considerable legitimacy in drawing the U.S. directly into the negotiations and are certain to welcome an American role.

For the U.S., this does not involve sending American troops to police a cease-fire. Some would argue that we should freeze our aid to Moscow until Russian troops pull out of the region. Such a move, however, would only worsen U.S.-Russian relations and fail to change the situation on the ground in Chechyna.

The U.S. can no longer sit idly by as thousands of Chechens and Russians are killed in the fighting. Moreover, the U.S. has a strong interest in trying to prevent the spread of instability throughout the already volatile Caucasus region. Involvement by the U.S., it should be made clear, does not guarantee that peace will quickly break out in Chechnya. But the U.S. must try something, and offering to mediate between the warring sides is better than standing on the sidelines.


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