Chechnya Crisis: Why Moscow will not easily listen to pleas for restraint

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The Independent Online
FOR ALL its dismay at Russia's deadly onslaught against Chechnya, the West has little scope to exert military, economic or even diplomatic pressure on Moscow to make it change its policies.

Though the parallel is constantly drawn with the Serb oppression of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, there is all the difference in the world between punitive strikes on an isolated, small-to-middling country in central Europe and action against a nuclear-armed former superpower with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

With the military option a non-starter, the search turns to economic and diplomatic leverage. But there, too, the possibilities are scant. Russia has no immediate need for outside financial support; and even before the Chechen crisis, its relations with the West - and the US in particular - were under heavy strain.

The obvious recourse would be a suspension of lending to Moscow. But the main $4.7bn roll-over loan from the International Monetary Fund was signed and sealed months ago. In the meantime Russia's economy has started to grow, finally reaping the benefits of the massive devaluation of the rouble in 1998. Moreover, as a major energy exporter, Russia is benefiting from the recent rise in world oil prices: its current account surplus could hit $20bn this year.

Theoretically the West could retaliate by suspending negotiations to reschedule a bulge of Soviet debt due for repayment in the next few years. But that might trigger an immensely disruptive Russian default - with potentially damaging political repercussions.

"There's a subliminal, unspoken blackmail to these sort of discussions," said an international financial official. "The Russians say, 'We're so weak, you have to be careful with us. If you pull the rug from under this government, a much worse one could follow.' "

A similar calculation colours the West's diplomatic dealings with Russia and its continuing support for the ever-more-erratic President, Boris Yeltsin. Increased pressure on Moscow, it is argued, would merely play into the hands of the nationalists and former Communists. Forcing Russia to accept policies that it does not like (for instance, the enlargement of Nato or the bombing of Yugoslavia) only cuts the ground from under the market-oriented modernisers on whom Russia's integration into the world community is ultimately held to depend.

The situation is not helped by the growing row over Washington's desire to modify the anti-ballistic-missile treaty of 1972. Mr Yeltsin warned President Clinton in a letter this week that a decision by the US to go ahead with even a limited anti-missile system would have dangerous consequences, such as a new arms race. To underline the point, on Tuesday Russia conducted the first test-firing in six years of an anti-missile rocket. None of that makes Moscow any more inclined to listen to the West on Chechnya.