Putin losing patience with US advice

SECURITY: The Russian leader, irritated with suggestions about how to handle the Beslan crisis, criticized the US for calling Chechen militants `separatists' instead of `terrorists'


Thu, Sep 23, 2004 - Page 6

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a succinct message for US President George W. Bush's administration: Stop the lectures on how he should deal with his Chechen problem.

Russian policy toward Chechnya has been a sore point between Washington and Moscow for years, and now there is the added US worry of a possible decisive shift to authoritarianism in Russia.

Putin clearly was irritated when, four days after the Beslan school massacre, the State Department recommended a political solution in Chechnya, the epicenter of radical Islam in Russia.

As Putin saw it, the administration proposal was tantamount to suggesting that Bush negotiate with the architects of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US.

Meeting with US and other foreign visitors, Putin asked: "Why don't you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?"

Among those who heard Putin that day was Clifford Kupchan, of the Washington-based Nixon Center, a private research group.

According to Kupchan, Putin also expressed irritation at what he described as the tendency in Washington to call Chechen militants "separatists" instead of "terrorists."

Countering Putin, the State Department officials say they have never recommended that Putin deal with Chechen terrorists, and they have not been shy about using the word "terrorists" to describe the authors of the Beslan massacre, the August airplane bombings and other acts of terror growing out of the Chechen crisis.

Bush minced no words on Tuesday in his UN speech about the dangers Russia faces: "This month in Beslan we saw, once again, how the terrorists measure their success -- in the death of the innocent, and in the pain of grieving families."

Still, Secretary of State Colin Powell admits the administration may have offered political advice on Chechnya to the Russians too quickly in the aftermath of Beslan.

"We, perhaps, might have, you know, been a little more sensitive in the heat of the moment," Powell now says.

Since taking office, Powell has been extremely careful in his public comments on Russia. Offending Moscow could mean less Russian cooperation in the war on terror, nonproliferation and a host of other issues.

Powell also believes that a democratic Russia is consistent with US values and security interests.

His thesis is that only through democracy can the two countries forge close security, political and economic ties.

Recent developments have not been encouraging.

Just days after Beslan, Putin seemed to jerk his country backward by stripping Russians of their right to elect governors and district representatives in the legislature.

"We do have concerns," Powell said in a cautious initial response. In the pursuit of terrorists, he said, a proper balance is needed to ensure that democratic processes are respected.

He was planning to raise the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the UN yesterday.