U.S. diplomat growing wary of Russian changes

Chechen war, Putin prompt worries about resurgence of nationalism


WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration's top policy-maker on Russia, in his annual assessment of where that country is headed, has presented a more wary review this time, even hinting at the possible return of some Soviet habits.

The policy official, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, said in a speech at Oxford University in England on Friday that the war in Chechnya and the transfer of power to Acting President Vladimir V. Putin raised the question of how the resurgence of Russian nationalism would assert itself.

One consistent theme of Putin's, among many inconsistencies, Talbott said, is his desire "to see Russia regain its strength, its sense of national pride and purpose."

"In and of itself, that goal is not only understandable, its achievement is indispensable," Talbott said.

"It all depends on how Russia defines strength, how it defines security. Will it do so in today's terms or yesterday's -- in terms that are proving successful elsewhere or in terms that have already proved disastrous for Russia under Soviet rule?" he asked.

Talbott then raised another issue: "Will Russia recognize that in an age of global -- and regional -- interdependence, the porousness of borders is a necessity out of which a viable state must make a virtue? Or will it fall back into the habit of treating this and other facts of life as a vulnerability to be neutralized or -- that most Soviet of all verbs -- to be liquidated?"

He also pondered, but did not give a conclusion, about whether Russia would understand that in Chechnya "indiscriminate aerial attacks, forced movement of populations and civilian roundups" are the work of a "weak and desperate state, not a strong and clearheaded one."

The speech was more skeptical than an address the deputy secretary gave at Stanford University in 1997. Then, he said that Russia "may have turned the tide -- it may be on the brink of a breakthrough." It was also more downbeat than a second speech he gave at Stanford in 1998, titled "The Case for Strategic Patience in a Time of Troubles."

Talbott only elliptically dealt with Putin's embrace of the Communists in the parliament last week, which resulted in a walkout of pro-democratic factions.

"We can speculate together -- and that's all we can do at this point -- on exactly what he's up to in his recent parliamentary maneuvers," Talbott said.

Addressing Russia's war against rebels in Chechnya, Talbott said that the military campaign is a "gruesome reminder of how hard it is for Russia to break free of its own past."

He blamed the reformist government in Moscow in 1992 and 1993 and the governments after the 1994-1996 Chechen war for leaving Chechnya to its own devices, thus fueling the appetite for total independence in the republic.

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