John Kampfner: Eyeball to eyeball with Vladimir Putin

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It is not often that you sit down for nearly four hours, until after midnight, with a world leader. It is especially strange when that man is Vladimir Putin, hardly regarded as the most forthcoming of interlocutors. My extraordinary encounter with the Russian President on Monday night, as part of a group of mainly foreign academics, provided an insight, however fleeting, into the psychology of a president in whose name systematic human rights abuses have been committed.

It is not often that you sit down for nearly four hours, until after midnight, with a world leader. It is especially strange when that man is Vladimir Putin, hardly regarded as the most forthcoming of interlocutors. My extraordinary encounter with the Russian President on Monday night, as part of a group of mainly foreign academics, provided an insight, however fleeting, into the psychology of a president in whose name systematic human rights abuses have been committed.

The question that needs answering is not whether Putin is an evil man wilfully destroying Chechnya. It is not whether the depraved mass murder of children in Beslan was the result of his policies towards the Caucasus or simply a dreadful extension of global terror. The only useful question is, what do we do about it? Dealing with difficult regimes around the world is the staple of diplomacy. Tony Blair's government, for all its hubris, differs little from its predecessors or from our Western neighbours. We apply ethical standards selectively, relative to national interest, a sense of priority and to an appreciation of danger. That is anything but ideal, but that seems to be the way it is.

The Prime Minister stands accused of being a craven appeaser to Russia. When Putin was anointed by Boris Yeltsin, Blair wooed him like no other, rushing over to St Petersburg during the Russian presidential elections as if to endorse him. Putin was invited to London to tea with the Queen, an "honour" last granted to Tsar Alexander II. Blair and Putin sat in a Moscow beer bar in a show of bonhomie. On each occasion the British went out of their way not to talk about the Chechen war. Unlike Bill Clinton, Blair refused to give an interview to Moscow's outspoken radio station, Ekho Moskvy, for fear of upsetting his host.

The Germans and the French were furious about all this. Not only did they see it as petty one-upmanship, which in part it was. They saw it as further evidence of Blair's foreign policy naivety, which in part it also was. Blair had again allowed himself to be convinced that personal charm begat influence. About a year ago, however, Blair's advisers told him that the softly, softly approach was not working, that he should be more vocal about Chechnya.

Now, after Beslan, there is only confusion among policy-makers. In the media there is justified indignation over Chechnya. As Joan Smith passionately pointed out a week ago in these pages, Putin has done nothing to stop the abuses. She cited the figure from Memorial, the courageous human rights group in Moscow, that over the past four years 3,000 Chechens have vanished, a proportion of the population on a par with Stalin's purges. In this most corrupt of countries, there are many people who have a vested interest in perpetuating the war. It is a truly dreadful problem.

So can anyone influence Putin, and, if so, how? The impression I came away with after listening to him for so long was ... possibly. The negatives were abundantly clear. He will not withdraw Russian troops. He will not negotiate with Chechen political leaders, whom he calls "child-killers". He is possessed of a Soviet-era conspiracy that certain forces in the West are helping the Chechens in order to destabilise Russia. He seems unapologetic in his persecution of journalists who seek to "undermine" the stability of the state.

Each statement was icily but eloquently delivered. Some Russian journalists wrote afterwards that we Westerners had been picked out because we might be more gullible. Anyone who looks back at the reporting of Mary Dejevsky, Jonathan Steele or myself during Soviet times might think again. One does not have to enjoy being with Putin or agree with him to try to understand him.

Putin came across as more intelligent than the hard-man caricature. He is nothing if not a realist. He was candid about Russia's limitations. The state did not have the resources to control its own borders, he said. It had no interest any more in expanding influence beyond them, he claimed. He accepted that the security services were inefficient and often corrupt. He insisted he was committed to holding parliamentary elections in Chechnya, although on his record nobody would expect them to be fair. And, most important of all, he did not rule out international involvement in the problem.

Having taken the issue to the United Nations and framed Beslan within the context of international terrorism, Putin has opened the door a chink. It may come to nothing, but the West is duty-bound to seize the chance. It has to be careful in its approach. Clumsy statements, such as the one delivered by Bernard Bot, the Dutch foreign minister, on behalf of the European Union, only alienate a political class in Russia that has reverted to the old standard of inferiority complex and paranoia. It was counter-productive to rush to condemn Russian policy within hours of the awful events. Jack Straw may have been right when he said people should take stock of the human suffering before drawing political conclusions.

Putin will eventually be forced to negotiate with the Chechens - all wars end that way. But it would be impossible for him to proceed soon, even if he wanted to, after such an attack. No world leader would do that. This is a man who is evidently not exercised by questions of democracy or human rights. What seems to matter to him personally, and the issue on which he has twice based his electoral appeal, is security. Putin has to be convinced that Russia's stability is jeopardised, not enhanced, by continuing the war. He has to be convinced that the West has no interest in seeing Russia weakened. He has to be shown that international mediation - most likely through the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe - will not be a humiliation. In a sense we may have to go back to the 1980s, to the era of detente and constructive engagement. Unlike that period, however, Russia is much more of a danger to itself and to its outlying regions than it is to us. We need to be wary but ready to become involved, rather than shouting from the rooftops.

Nothing will be gained from indulging Putin or denouncing him. The only possible chance we have in this desperate situation will come from steady, measured but incessant pressure.

John Kampfner is political editor of the 'New Statesman' and author of 'Blair's Wars'

Alan Watkins is away

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