Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott yesterday urged Russia to refrain from the use of "indiscriminate force" in combating terrorism and warned Moscow to avoid a reprise of its "disastrous" 1994-96 war in Chechnya.
Calling it a "moment of truth for the new Russian state," Talbott also condemned the roundup, detention and deportation in Moscow over the past week of roughly 10,000 people from the southern Caucasus as Russian officials sought to end a wave of deadly bomb attacks blamed on Chechen separatists.
Talbott said that "blaming people of darker complexion" by Russian officials was "not just an ugly and atavistic development, but an ominous one--and I believe, profoundly contrary to Russia's own interests." He said Russia should be "careful not to make people from the Caucasus second-class citizens."
Though Talbott's speech at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University had been scheduled for weeks, administration sources said it gave Talbott an opportunity to send a message to Moscow. It also could preempt criticism of the Clinton administration, which was accused of tolerating Russian aggression during the 1994-96 war in Chechnya.
"We've been down this road before," one official said. "We've learned lessons. With the benefit of five years of hindsight, we can approach it a little more intelligently."
Talbott urged Russia to show "restraint and wisdom" even as Russia pressed ahead with ground and air attacks. Thousands of civilians fled the area.
Restraint, Talbott said, "means taking action against real terrorists, but not using indiscriminate force that endangers innocents or resuming the disastrous 1994-96 war in Chechnya." He said the deportations from Moscow showed "how easy it is for Russia, when it feels threatened, to fall back on old stereotypes." He said Russia should open political dialogue with pragmatic leaders from the north Caucasus instead of "antagonizing them or their populations."
A Russian official said Talbott's remarks indicate a "more assertive mode than in the last Russian campaign" in Chechnya. He said it remained unclear whether the Clinton administration would press its view by raising its concerns at multilateral institutions. Administration officials aren't clear about how they would respond if Russia escalates its attacks, but Russian officials believe that if they keep casualties low there would be little response from the United States.
Some Russian officials have rejected Western criticism of its attacks on Chechnya, comparing it to the war on Kosovo.
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said that the two military actions weren't comparable. He said the war on Kosovo was designed to coerce Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to stop the killing of ethnic Albanian civilians, whereas Russia's offensive isn't clearly aimed at anyone. "In the case of Chechnya, there is no leader to coerce who has control over the rebels," he said.