Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Staying Ahead of the Political Train




Russia's conquest of Chechnya is being capsized by guerrilla attacks. A bloody stalemate similar to the one that humiliated Moscow in 1996 is suddenly a plausible outcome to this campaign as well.


The worsening Chechen conflict casts a shadow over President Vladimir Putin's hopes of garnering political laurels and economic help from the world's most affluent industrial democracies at his first Group of Seven summit in Okinawa next week.


The president plans to deliver an impassioned plea for solidarity against terrorism and Islamic extremism in Chechnya. But Western responses will range from tepid to chilly. The coldest shoulder will come from French President Jacques Chirac, who has let Moscow know that he will not have time for bilateral talks with Putin while in Japan.


Scheduling will be blamed. But the increasing diplomatic frostiness between Paris and Moscow makes Chirac's snub seem deliberate.


Putin has never responded directly to a formal French invitation made last year to visit Paris. Instead, he has gone to most other major European capitals with the intention to "reward" those who have been most lenient on his actions in Chechnya.


U.S. President Bill Clinton will take the middle ground at the July 21-23 Okinawa summit, aides say. He will meet with Putin privately and avoid conflict in public. But a new coolness that has crept into Washington-Moscow relations will be evident.


"The death grip in Chechnya continues for both sides," Sandy Berger, the U.S. president's national security adviser, said disconsolately in an interview on U.S.-Russian relations.


Describing domestic support for Putin's Chechnya policies as "fierce," Berger then asked: "But is it fierce enough to withstand the internal bleeding that is going on? That is not clear."


Berger's comments indirectly suggest that the Clinton team will be much more restrained on Russia than it was at the Cologne G-7 meeting last summer. In a political fiasco, Clinton and his summit colleagues hailed President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin as commanding Russia's future, only to see both of them resign by year's end.


Depersonalizing the Kremlin-White House relationship is welcome, even late in the day for the Clinton team. The trick for Clinton at Okinawa and beyond will be to deny Putin real economic aid while dangling future help if and when Putin commits clearly to peace and democratic rule.


Jim Hoagland is an associate editor, senior foreign correspondent and columnist for The Washington Post, to which he contributed this article.