Why the West left Chechnya to its fate

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While Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, last night set out why Britain's approach to Russia must be "consistent, principled and constructive", officials explained why Britain has limited its response to the Chechnya crisis to an expression of "

concern" over the area and had not used, or threatened, any sanction against Moscow.

Mr Hurd also telephoned Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, yesterday to repeat his expression of concern and urge Moscow "to return to a situation in which we could resume a productive partnership". British officials, giving news of the call, were anxious to dispel any suggestion that the relationship was broken or damaged.

In his speech, to the London Business School, Mr Hurd said Russian military action had been botched and a setback for political and economic reform. The thrust of his message was limited to urging Moscow to accommodate the Chechen people's wishes, allow humanitarian relief into Grozny and end fighting.

He said Moscow had agreed to an approach from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, but had yet to show it was willing to allow OSCE representatives on to the ground in Chechnya - an "important signal".

The Foreign Secretary added Russia could expect understanding from its Western partners "but our own public, and Russians, too, are equally entitled to expect Western governments consistently to uphold accepted standards of human rights and internationally agreed principles governing the use of armed force".

Meanwhile, British officials explained why Western policy towards Russia during the crisis has been limited to hand-wringing. "Most sanctions would not have hit their targets," one official said, adding that for the West to show support or sympathy for the rebels would confirm fears that, having encouraged the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, it now wanted to break up Russia.

The officials pointed out that while many people were saying Boris Yeltsin could no longer be seen as the flag-carrier for democratic reformers against the nationalists, there was no one else.

The British view is that Mr Yeltsin has been very ill advised and his political position badly damaged by the mixture of incompetence and brutality in the military assault on Grozny. The officials said any Russian government giving away territory would be wiped out.

No one is particularly optimistic about a negotiated future in Chechnya, but it is expected that Moscow will declare "victory" over the north and Grozny, leaving the south as bandit country. Talk of negotiated autonomy was no longer realistic and there would be military occupation for some time.