MOSCOW, Sept. 12 (UPI) -- UPI's Moscow-based analyst Peter Lavelle interviews Dr. Andrew C. Kuchins, Moscow director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on Russia after Beslan.
UPI: At a meeting Vladimir Putin granted to a group of Western analysts and journalists in the wake of the Beslan tragedy, Putin praised his American counterpart George Bush but criticized America's willingness to meet Chechen separatists - people the Kremlin calls terrorists. What do you think Putin's attitude is toward the United States at this point - particularly in regards to fighting international terrorism?
Kuchins: Judging from his remarks to the Russian nation on Sept. 4, reports of his meeting with Western academics and journalists on Sept. 6 as well as other remarks from Russian officials, notably Foreign Minister Lavrov, Mr. Putin appears to be of two minds about the U.S. and the West, and it is very difficult to reconcile them at this point. To some extent he appears to be reaching out to the U.S., but he is also implicitly if not explicitly accusing the U.S. of actions that strengthen the terrorists that are holding the Russian nation in a virtual state of siege right now. The scapegoating of the U.S. and the West for what are essentially profound failures of Russian policy in Chechnya as well the abject failure to improve the security of Russian citizens against terrorist attacks for the last five years has been one of the most disappointing reactions in the past week or so.
This has unleashed a torrent of invective about those in the U.S. and the West that supposedly aid and abet the terrorists because they supposedly seek to weaken Russia, even see it broken up to some extent.
Particularly since Russia possesses the most extensive arsenal of nuclear weapons and materials, the possibility of Russia becoming further destabilized and less capable of guarding these materials is the most horrific possibility we can consider. If terrorists, or more aptly, mass murderers like those at Beslan, are ready to shoot hundreds of innocent children and civilians in the back, certainly they would revel in the possibility of being able to conduct truly catastrophic terrorist acts involving nuclear materials. Even those U.S. policymakers and those influential in U.S. policy circles whom the Russians consider "congenitally anti-Russian" genuinely have no desire to see Russia weakened in this kind of manner. To think otherwise is dangerous paranoia. Perhaps U.S. policymakers need to state this in public more unequivocally; then it is in U.S. interests to reach out to the Russians and offer more tools from our anti-terrorist toolbox, especially in intelligence sharing and border control.
The Russians are probably right in being disappointed in U.S. neglect to their terrorist challenges as Washington has been extremely preoccupied with Iraq for the last two years. But I would argue that while the U.S. may be strategically shortsighted in such neglect, it is principally benign rather than malign neglect.
But I should also note that the Russian government has hardly evinced great enthusiasm for such partnership in the last couple of years either. Perhaps the gravity of the current crisis may change this predisposition, but judging from public statements at this point, I am skeptical for the moment. There are engrained patterns of distrust on both sides, and maybe, very unfortunately, the threat may have to grow even more acute to overcome these patterns.
Q. For almost the past week, many Russia watchers suspect that the Kremlin may return to some kind of "fortress Russia" to fight terrorism on its own. Along the some line of reasoning, it is now thought Putin flirted with the West, particularly after "September 11," but - in fact the terrorist threat on Russia's southern border - the Kremlin may prefer a Soviet like model of centralization at home to fight terrorism. Do you think this is a possibility?
A. This is certainly a possibility, and many commentators and even politicians are openly calling for such a hardening and turning inward of Russia's struggle to combat the threat. The problem with this option, however, seems to be the levels of incompetence and corruption, things Mr. Putin referred to in his Sept. 4 remarks, in Russian military, security, and intelligence forces today leave me with virtually no confidence that such an approach can work. While he was loath to admit this, Mr. Putin's principal problem is the devastated wasteland that is Chechnya. Efforts at a more hard-line policy there seem only likely to perpetuate the vicious cycle that exists now and breed more hopelessly embittered people ready to undertake any horrible act in Russia, probably even more horrible than what has taken place in recent weeks.
Q. A small minority of analysts sees just the opposite occurring. This line of reasoning suggests that Putin has an opportunity to tackle the corruption in the military and security forces to truly embrace America's war against international terrorism. Thus, instead of "fortress Russia," we could see a much stronger U.S.-Russia alliance when confronting radical Islamic terrorists? How likely is this a possibility?
A. I am perhaps more optimistic on this count than many, but perhaps for rather depressing reasons. I would not put it that Mr. Putin "has an opportunity to tackle corruption the military" but rather that he really has no choice. The other option is status quo or slightly modified status quo, which will only result in more terrorist acts that at some point will destroy any public credibility in his leadership. Already the Russian people are profoundly pessimistic about the government's capacity to protect them.
Let's also keep in mind, that even if Mr. Putin is successful, such a massive transformation will hardly take place overnight -- it will be a long hard slog that will require extraordinary political fortitude on Mr. Putin's part as well as tremendous international support. Despite the multitude of obvious security and intelligence failures over the last five years, we have not seen anything close to the political will from Mr. Putin that will be required.
By the same token, I also think that there must be significant change in Chechnya policy, including a degree of internationalization. The political process needs to be genuinely broadened; and this does not mean negotiating with "child killers," as Mr. Putin put it. Nobody is asking him to negotiate with Shamil Basayev since that is clearly beyond the pale, and nobody is really asking him to negotiate or recognize (Aslan) Maskhadov at this point either. His leadership in the late 1990s was an utter failure. But there are other more responsible Chechen political forces that should not be pushed aside as the Kremlin has done in the past year or so in stage-managing two elections. There needs to be massive Russian as well as international aid to support real reconstruction of Chechnya's destroyed economy. At some point when the security situation is better under hand, international peacekeepers could be involved. International NGOs and human rights organizations should be welcomed rather than distrusted. Rooting out Shamil Basayev and others directly involved in terrorism most likely will have to be left to Russian forces, but certainly U.S. military and intelligence may be useful in training as well as supporting operations. U.S. may not be able to offer anything on the human intel side, but we may be able to provide something useful on the technical side if we really put our minds to it. And certainly there must be stronger efforts to cooperate on stifling financial flows. Even modest success at U.S.-Russian cooperation to address threats to Russian security can go a long way in helping to break down the barriers of distrust, and there is no doubt in my mind that some of the threats to Russia are threats to U.S. interests as well.
Q. Shouldn't the United States simply get over the fact that the Kremlin will not negotiate a political settlement in Chechnya with individuals it knows to have been involved in terrorist activities? Does the United States and the West really believe known terrorists - or what media call "militants" -- are fit to rule Chechnya?
A. Actually, as I suggested above, I think the United States is well "over" this in regard to Aslan Maskhadov, and we do not even need to speak about Basayev in this regard. There have been a lot of "scarecrow" arguments thrown about in the Russian press in the last week, a number of them by Russian officials, including to some extent President Putin himself. Such things, especially the argument about the supposed U.S. desire to weaken Russia, only distract from genuine problems and attempts at constructively developing genuine solutions. The fulminations over British refusal to extradite (Chechen envoy) Akhmed Zakayev and the U.S. recently giving (separatist foreign minister Ilyas) Akhmadov political asylum recently doesn't get us very far. If the Russian government presents London or Washington with compelling evidence about their involvement in terrorism, what possibly would be our interest in not turning them over?
This is, understandably, a time of tremendous emotional angst for Russians that is inflaming a lot of political rhetoric right now. Given the severity of the threats Russians are facing and the undeniable interests of the U.S. in seeing these threats squashed, all of us need to really focus hard in the most constructive and responsible manner possible.