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
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
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. …