Russia's Rights

by Dan Pollock | 11/5/99 6:00am

The similarities between the current armed conflict in Chechnya and the recent military action in Kosovo raises some very frightening implications for America's current foreign policy. Once again an Eastern European country is fighting a violent war against a separatist southern province. Yet again, the war is being waged primarily because of ethnic and religious differences between the province's independence-minded minority and an angry majority in the north. And yet again the conflict has produced large numbers of refugees and a high level of civilian casualties. The major difference is that instead of rushing to react with military forces, this time neither NATO nor the U.S. has offered anything other than rhetoric.

Russian officials claim that the purpose of their military action against the mostly Islamic province of Chechnya is "to destroy the terrorist stronghold and make (the republic's) revival possible." In other words, to forcibly reinstate Russian rule. Russians have suspected the presence of a terrorist stronghold in Chechnya ever since Islamic militants launched two failed invasions last summer into Russia and then were believed to have orchestrated several bombings around Moscow that killed 300 people in September. In contrast, Russia's aerial bombing of Grozny and other Chechnyan cities has caused approximately 300,000 Chechnyan refugees to flee their homes in the hopes of avoiding Russian attacks like the one that killed 25 people, including two Red Cross workers, in a civilian convoy on October 29.

Thus far the strongest reaction to the killing from the Clinton administration was a statement from U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, when he said that the United States hopes that Russia will "turn to political levers as soon as possible" and "find a way to minimize civilian casualties." This weak-armed foreign policy maneuver sets a very dangerous precedent coming so soon after the action in Kosovo.

Essentially it appears as if the U.S. policy is -- we will respond militarily to any country that is killing large numbers of its own civilians, unless you have nuclear weapons to dissuade us. The danger of this message is that it encourages governments around the world to invest more in the development of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, with the recent voting down of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, it will be increasingly difficult for us to monitor new nuclear testing.

The counter-argument is that Russia, if not an ally, is still a very powerful friend, and not one that we want to brush-off lightly. Talbott has argued that Russia has the "right and duty to protect the state and its citizens. This rhetoric is frightening because it sounds vaguely similar to the arguments used by Slobodan Milosevic to justify his country's attacks on Kosovo last year.

The strongest argument in Russia's defense is that their military action as a response to terrorism is no different from what the U.S. would do in similar circumstances. The U.S. is well-versed in the tactic of attacking suspected terrorist strongholds. As recently as October 28, the Clinton administration said that it didn't make any mistakes in last year's bombing of a suspected chemical weapons plant in Sudan. Perhaps Boris Yeltsin is taking his cues from Bill Clinton in attacking Chechnya.

It would be sheer lunacy to take military action against Russia, but there are a number of steps we could take, beyond the casual chastising by President Clinton's cabinet members. I don't think we should be giving financial aid to Russia while they are engaged in a military conflict that one might assume goes against U.S. principals. However, there is little chance of Russia receiving any more money from the U.S. as long as the Senate is investigating allegations that Russia misused previous U.S. foreign aid.

Another way we could respond is to demand that a UN force be allowed to monitor the area to prevent war crimes from taking place, like the ones committed by Serbians in Kosovo last spring. We should also ask the Russian government for a more specific explanation of what they hope to accomplish by sending the major invasion into Chechnya. This would be especially useful since Chechnyan leaders have already expressed a desire to have peace talks with the Russians.

The only major disappointment in the recent Town Hall Meetings was that not a single candidate commented on formulating a new U.S. foreign policy towards Russia. Both Al Gore and Bill Bradley discussed our foreign policy with regard to smaller ethnic conflicts like East Timor, but no one seems to have any ideas on how to negotiate a better life for the people of Tibet, the Islamic people of Russia, and the ethnic minorities of any future nuclear states.

Bill Bradley says we need to use multilateral institutions to get involved in regional conflicts. But no multilateral institution is going to take military force against a nuclear power. I challenge the presidential candidates to formulate a new, more coherent foreign policy for dealing with the actions of nuclear powers. If we sincerely believe in the principals of human rights, our policies should make that clear to our allies and trading partners through stronger, preferably nonviolent action in response to violations of those principals. Likewise we should take every step possible to prevent our enemies from acquiring weapons that would allow them to pursue a plan of terrorism behind a nuclear shield.

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