July 18, 2002: Ambassador Steven Pifer discusses the war in Chechnya with host Daljit Dhaliwal.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Ambassador Steven Pifer, welcome to Wide Angle. Now, you’re the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs. Connect the dots for us: how does the war in Chechnya impact on us here in the United States?
Steven Pifer: Well, the concern we have about the conflict in Chechnya is first of all humanitarian. What you have there is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy for the Chechens, you’ve seen thousands of people killed, the destruction of Grozny, hundreds of thousands displaced.
It’s also a tragedy for the Russians. And where it impacts on the US-Russia agenda is a problem. It’s something that we talk about a lot with the Russians. The President raises it regularly, Secretary Powell raises it regularly. It’s something that we would like to find a way to encourage the Russians first of all to end the human rights abuses that we see in the security sweeps, and second, try to find a negotiated settlement because we don’t think this can be solved militarily. And until there’s some progress on that it’s going to continue to be a difficult issue in the US-Russia relationship.
Daljit Dhaliwal: And there’s lots of very interesting issues that I want to try to come back to a little bit later on.
Steven Pifer: Sure.
Daljit Dhaliwal: But why does Russia care so much about holding on to Chechnya? I mean, why does this small piece of territory matter so much to them?
Steven Pifer: Well, I think the Russian concern is one, to protect Russian territorial integrity. And they don’t want to see one bit break-off, because it might encourage separatists elsewhere in Russia. So they’re very much focused on preserving Russia within the borders of Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Daljit Dhaliwal: And I should say, this is something that we support. We support Russian territorial integrity. We don’t agree that the Chechens or other separatist groups have a right unilaterally to break away from Russia.
Steven Pifer: You don’t think it’s an independence movement? I mean, it does after all have the popular will of the people behind it similar to the situation that we see with the Palestinians.
Daljit Dhaliwal: I think it’s a situation which is fairly complex. There are certain aspects pushing for independence and separatism. Our view is that these are issues that can be dealt with maybe later down the line. The focus now really ought to be to find a way to bring the fighting to an end, and that means getting some dialogue going between the Russians and the Chechens.
Steven Pifer: So the US position isn’t opposed to independence, eventually at some stage maybe further down the road for the Chechen people.
Daljit Dhaliwal: If it’s mutually agreed by the Russians and the Chechens, it’s an issue that they need to decide together.
Steven Pifer: So we’re not talking about any sort of status which involves self autonomy; we’re talking about full fledged independence, a proper state for the Chechens.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Well, some Chechens wanted that. What happened is, after the first conflict in Chechnya, which ended in 1996, basically the Russians and the Chechens reached what I think was a wise decision. They said, let’s put this issue of Chechnya in its final status off for five years and work on some other questions.
Steven Pifer: And that, I think, is a sensible approach. But we don’t agree that the Chechens can unilaterally leave Russia.
Daljit Dhaliwal: So in the meantime the war, this brutal bloody war that we’ve seen in our film, continues for five years. But we also have a very important relationship now with Russia. They are our ally in the war against terrorism. But it’s also a very sensitive relationship. Isn’t it the point that actually we can’t bleat about Chechnya that much, we can’t get in their faces about Chechnya in the way that perhaps you would like to?
Steven Pifer: Well, I don’t think that’s quite true. The US-Russia relationship has developed in a very positive way over the last year, and increasingly we’re partners. We’re partners in the struggle against international terrorism, we’re partners in reducing strategic offensive forces. We’re partners in trying to promote a solution in the Middle East.
Daljit Dhaliwal: So we’re finding ways increasingly where we can work together. But the relationship that we have with Russia and the relationship that the President has with President Putin is also one where we can talk about difficult questions.
Steven Pifer: And for example, when President Putin was here, when he was in Texas in November, the President raised our concerns about Chechnya there. That issue came up in Moscow when…
Daljit Dhaliwal: What particular concerns would he have raised about Chechnya, can we be…
Steven Pifer: Well, the two main concerns that we have about Russia and Chechnya are first of all, the human rights abuses. And our concern being that as Russian security forces conduct these security sweeps in the area, we all too often hear reports of summary executions, arbitrary detentions, beatings and such.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Also torture as well, allegations of torture…
Steven Pifer: There are lots of these allegations. Now, to be fair, I mean, this is coming both ways. And certainly there are an equal number of allegations about how the Chechens behave. But that doesn’t excuse the Russians. And our message to the Russians is, first of all, you need to maintain discipline over your forces. And second of all…
Daljit Dhaliwal: Are they out of control?
Steven Pifer: In some cases, I mean, when you see these sorts of abuses you have to ask that question. And the second point is that when these abuses are committed, there needs to be an effort to hold those responsible accountable. And this has been a big part of our message to the Russians.
Daljit Dhaliwal: The second main message has been we don’t think you can solve this militarily. This conflict has been going on now for almost three years. It’s hard for us to see an end in sight.
Steven Pifer: And we think it’s important not just for Chechnya but also for Russia, to start a dialogue and try to find a negotiated settlement, because that’s the way we think this problem can be resolved, not by fighting which we fear means conflict into the indefinite future.
Daljit Dhaliwal: I want to come back to the global war against terrorism and post September the 11th…
Steven Pifer: Right.
Daljit Dhaliwal: It has become increasingly harder to engage Russia over the issue of human rights abuses committed by soldiers in Chechnya. Isn’t there a sense that we really have given Russia a pass from this because they are our allies?
Steven Pifer: I disagree with that, because again, the President raised it in November, the President raised it again with President Putin in Moscow. Secretary Powell raises it regularly with Foreign Minister Ivanov. And when Secretary Powell was in Moscow in December, he had a fairly extensive conversation on this with President Putin. Deputy Secretary…
Daljit Dhaliwal: What are we saying to them there?
Steven Pifer: Again, it’s the two main messages. This military solution isn’t going to work. There needs to be a negotiated solution. And you need to do something about the human rights abuses.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Okay, we talk about a negotiated solution. There have been some signs of optimism that the Russians and the Chechens might come together and talk. There were some meetings, but it all seems to have sort of faded into the background again. Where are we right now with the peace talks?
Steven Pifer: Well, in late September in a speech President Putin seemed to open the door a bit for negotiations. And he seemed to draw a distinction between the international terrorist groups in Chechnya and acknowledged that there were some historical roots to this conflict.
The Chechens, the moderate Chechens, led by former leader Aslan Maskhadov responded. There was sort of an effort to try to engage. And there was in fact a face-to-face meeting between a senior Russian representative and a representative of Maskhadov in November.
This gave us some encouragement. We were very hopeful that this might lead to a continuing dialogue that could find a way to end the fighting. But unfortunately we haven’t seen any follow up to that meeting which took place in November.
Daljist Dhaliwal: What happened?
Steven Pifer: We don’t have details on the conversation. It was one meeting, it took place over the course of the day. We were hopeful thereafter that there might be some kind of a continuation, but we haven’t seen that happen.
Every now and then we hear suggestions there may be some kind of back channel conversations, but so far in terms of looking for the dialogue, which we think is the key missing piece in this conflict, we really can’t find it.
Daljit Dhaliwal: How is the State Department, for example, trying to be constructive in those types of talks, and do we for instance have some kind of formula that we can present to the two sides? Is there a peace plan of sorts?
Steven Pifer: Well, I don’t think there’s really a role for the United States here as a mediator. I mean, it’s not our plan. What we’re trying to do is encourage both sides, both the Russians, and we also have certain contacts with the moderate Chechens, encouraging them that the thing is they need to find a dialogue. They, I think, can then be smart enough to work out what the arrangements are.
Daljit Dhaliwal: And you said that there were negotiations between the Russians and Aslan Maskhadov. Is that somebody that the United States feels comfortable with as…
Steven Pifer: Yes.
Daljit Dhaliwal: …somebody who has his pulse very much on the finger of the grievances of the Chechen people?
Steven Pifer: Well, when we look at Maskhadov, we think he is somebody who commands respect among a fairly broad cross section of Chechens, probably more so than any of the other senior Chechens at the moment.
He’s also somebody who by virtue of his election in 1999 has a certain degree of legitimacy. So we see him as somebody who we think can be a spokesman for the Chechens, and we’ve encouraged the Russians to try to open a dialogue with him.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Do you see him as a moderate leader, though? I mean, given the problems that President Putin says he has in Chechnya with the Islamic fundamentalists infiltrating the ranks of moderate…
Steven Pifer: Right.
Daljit Dhaliwal: …Chechen fighters, the nationalists effectively. Is he somebody who has control over the situation even?
Steven Pifer: Well, it’s a very difficult situation because you have lots of different factions. There are some factions in Chechnya who we believe have connections to international terrorist organizations including al-Qaida. We don’t put Maskhadov in that group.
And actually, that is one element of our approach towards Chechnya that has changed towards them since September 11th, is since September 11 we’ve called upon the moderate Chechens and said, you need to distance yourselves from these groups that are connected to al-Qaida and the other international terrorist organizations.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Are you saying that al-Qaida fighters have actually infiltrated the ranks of the moderate Chechens or…
Steven Pifer: It’s more there are different factions. And we just said that the moderate factions need to put some distance between them and these other groups.
And what we’ve heard in response is, we’ve heard the right answer, they’ve said, yes, we understand the importance of doing that. What we haven’t seen, though, is real action to sort of create that divide.
And I think until there is that distance, that’s probably one of the things that makes it difficult for the Russians to deal or and open some kind of a negotiating dialogue with.
Daljit Dhaliwal: If the Chechens were able to put as you say a distance between themselves and the al-Qaida fighters and between the other foreign extremists, Islamic extremists who are in Pankisi Gorge in particular in Georgia which borders Chechnya, would that change the US position at all in terms of whether you would then support the Chechnya position on independence, or are you still very much firmly coming down on the Russian side that it has to be…
Steven Pifer: Well, the United States government took a decision when the Soviet Union broke up that we would recognize the successor states within their current boundaries. And part of that was a concern that once you begin to undo a boundary you could potentially open up a big can of worms. And you only have to look at Yugoslavia to see how difficult these situations can be once you begin to try to redraw borders.
Daljit Dhaliwal: And also look at the kind of resolution that we have now in Yugoslavia.
Steven Pifer: We have that resolution but after a lot of pain and a lot of suffering.
Dalit Dhaliwal: But that’s also happening in Chechnya right now.
Steven Pifer: It’s happening in Chechnya, we don’t want to see that happen elsewhere within Russia.
Daljit Dhaliwal: And you talked a little bit about the kind of dialogue that you would like to see. I mean, is it just talks about talks, sort of similar to what we saw in Northern Ireland, or are you confident that we can actually achieve a real breakthrough here?
Steven Pifer: Well, what we hope is that the Russians and the Chechens can sit down, work out arrangements, first of all, to end the fighting, work out arrangements that would allow for conditions for the return of the many displaced persons. And then later on they can tackle the ultimate issue of the status of Chechnya.
Daljit Dhaliwal: And what is the situation with regard to the refugees? I understand that Russia wants to try and make them go home. What is the US position of how they’re dealing with that?
Steven Pifer: Well, we estimate now around 400 to 450,000 people living in Chechnya, probably about 150,000 of that number are displaced in refugee camps and such. And you probably have another 150,000 Chechens in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.
Our view is, and it’s very consistent with the United Nations’ view, is that displaced persons, if they’re going to return, it should be a voluntary return. And we’ve been very clear on that message, the United Nations has been very clear, that refugees are not forced to return, it should be voluntary.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Are we getting access, is the United States getting access in the kind of way that it would like to refugees on the ground in terms of providing them with assistance?
Steven Pifer: We have a fairly active assistance program. Over the last two and a half years we’ve provided about $45 million both through American non-governmental organizations but also through the United Nations and the International Committee on the Red Cross.
So that’s going to help the displaced persons both in Chechnya and in some of the neighboring regions. And as part of that, people at our embassy in Moscow do get into the area. It’s difficult sometimes to get into Chechnya, but they do have some access which allows us a) to ensure that our efforts and assistance are coordinated with what other international organizations are doing, but also to give us some sense that in fact the assistance is targeted to the right needs.
Daljit Dhaliwal: I just wanted to touch a little bit on how Russia is actually prosecuting this war. It’s going around and it’s stoking the fires of extremism — the very situation that we saw in Afghanistan. If something isn’t done about this and some kind of concrete ways of tackling this situation, we are looking at lots of mini Afghanistan, aren’t we, potentially?
Steven Pifer: Well, our concern is that the tactics that the Russian forces are using when they don’t abide by international norms, when they are committing these human rights abuses. What they are doing is they are pushing more Chechens towards joining the fighters and also towards a radical Islam.
So we think in this regard Russian tactics are very counter-productive towards what I think Russia ultimately would like to see in Chechnya.
Daljit Dhaliwal: But also very counter productive to the United States’ global war against terrorism and there we need to have some kind of interjection with the Russians and come down very strongly and get in their face about what they’re doing in Chechnya.
Steven Pifer: This is something that we are concerned about. And again, this is one of the reasons why we talk to them about these abuses on a regular basis.
There was some hope back in March or April where the Russian commander in Chechnya put out a new order, referred to as Order No. 80, which began to say things like, troops on sweeps had to have documentation. There couldn’t be just seizures of people without any explanation of what was happening. No masks, identify themselves. Moving towards what we would call a normal military or law enforcement type operation.
Daljit Dhaliwal: But that hasn’t happened, and our film actually proves that, because some of those scenes that we saw, those appalling scenes, were actually filmed after Order 80 was put in place.
Steven Pifer: That’s right. I mean, the problem that we have now is while this order has been put out, as far as we can tell it is not being widely observed. And that again is just going to continue to contribute to the counter-productive activities that are going to drive more Chechens towards taking up arms against the Russians.
Daljit Dhaliwal: The conflict in Chechnya has sometimes been compared to Russia’s Vietnam. What’s your view on that? Do you think that’s an apt analogy?
Steven Pifer: I’m not sure if that’s the best analogy. I mean, I think if you’re looking for a more appropriate analogy it was probably Afghanistan.
Daljit Dhaliwal: What does the way again that Russia’s prosecuting this war, what does that tell you about Russia’s political culture? Are they really moving towards the West?
Steven Pifer: Well, I think to be fair we have to understand the complexity of the situation in Chechnya. After the first conflict in 1996 concluded, the Russians really withdrew from Chechnya and said, in essence, full autonomy. You Chechens, you can run Chechnya as long as it stays as part of Russia.
And by all observers, at best the situation was chaotic. But you had criminal activities, kidnapping, murders, trafficking of all kinds. It really was in chaos. And I think by early 1999 in Russia there was concern about, could you let this kind of disorder continue? So I’m not sure it’s fair to say the Russians are just looking to go, and I don’t think they want to go in and simply violate human rights. But they saw a real situation here and they were trying to find a way to come to grips with it.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Now, I’m not saying it’s any kind of efficient policy, but…
Steven Pifer: Right.
Daljit Dhaliwal: …certainly on the ground, I’ll want to relate that to our film again…
Steven Pifer: Yes.
Daljit Dhaliwal: …we’re seeing Chechen civilians suffer terribly. We have a huge refugee crisis in countries like Ingushetia.
Steven Pifer: I don’t think this is a policy that comes from Moscow, but it does underline the importance that the Russian military needs to instill and maintain discipline, and that’s not happening.
Daljit Dhaliwal: But Putin must know that these abuses are taking place.
Steven Pifer: I don’t think he is blind to that fact. Again, you have a problem in sort of, how does the order get translated from the center out to the commanders in the field.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Well, with his background in the KGB he’s got to be on top of the situation. He’s a military man in some respects, isn’t he?
Steven Pifer: I think so, but I think it’s also important to understand the situation there in Chechnya. And I’m not saying this to justify the behavior of the Russians, but you do have Russian soldiers who are seeing very brutal tactics being conducted against them, mines, I mean guerilla wars tend to be the most brutal on both sides, and unfortunately that kind of activity feeds back and forth.
That doesn’t justify it; we still think it’s incumbent on the Russians, though, to maintain the discipline of their forces. And unfortunately, that’s not happening to the degree that it should.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Russia describes the war in Chechnya as a war against terrorism. What’s the US’s position on that? Do we agree?
Steven Pifer: We have a slightly different view. We agree that the Russians are fighting in Chechnya against some factions that are connected to international terrorism, but we would not consider the entire conflict to be a war against terrorism. It’s a more complex issue.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Complex in what sense?
Steven Pifer: In that you have groups in there, and it gets into shades of gray between some of the tactics, but you have groups in there that are fighting that we don’t see as terrorists, that have some legitimate political grievances that are going to have to be addressed. And this is why we want to keep pushing back towards getting some kind of a dialogue going.
Daljit Dhaliwal: But you’re referring to the moderate Chechen nationalist…
Steven Pifer: Right.
Daljit Dhaliwal: …as opposed to who else?
Steven Pifer: As opposed to groups, for example, the group that used to be headed by Khattab who we believe was killed several months ago, Shamil Basayaev we believe leads a group that probably has some connections to international terrorist organizations. So you have this variety of factions, some of which we think truly do fit the classification of terrorists.
Daljit Dhaliwal: And have we managed to prove links to al-Qaida?
Steven Pifer: We have some pretty strong suspicions in that regard. We do think that there were large sums of money, billions of dollars, that came in to support certain groups like the Basayaev and Khattab.
And we think some of those connections go back to groups that were operating outside of Chechnya and perhaps including al-Qaida.
Daljit Dhaliwal: So how many al-Qaida men are there fighting the war in Chechnya?
Steven Pifer: We don’t have the information on that. I mean, it’s not the total group of Chechens fighting; it’s some subset of that group.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Were there Chechen fighters in the war in Afghanistan?
Steven Pifer: There were rumors to that effect; I’m not sure whether we ever got hard information on that.
Daljit Dhaliwal: So we can’t say definitely one way or the other yes there were or no there weren’t, but there’s no evidence that exists to suggest that there were.
Steven Pifer: I can’t give you a hard yes or no on that one.
Daljit Dhaliwal: But they’re not being held in Camp X-ray?
Steven Pifer: I have to give you a no comment on that.
Daljit Dhaliwal: You mentioned the discussions that President Putin has had with President Bush and also with Colin Powell where the issue of human rights abuses has been raised with President Putin. What’s their response when you tell them about this?
Steven Pifer: Well, they see this and have portrayed this as a war against terrorism, and they have tried to draw a parallel to the conflict that we have in Afghanistan with al-Qaida. We have just a very different view on that. And we haven’t succeeded to date in persuading them that there really needs to be some kind of a negotiated settlement.
Daljit Dhaliwal: What do we need to do? How can we exert more pressure on the Russians to be a bit more forthcoming at least in the dialogue?
Steven Pifer: Well, I think it’s an issue we’re going to continue to raise, it certainly will remain on the agenda. But I think this is a case where we can’t overestimate how much leverage we…. We don’t really have good leverage to effect this. And ultimately this is going to be a decision that the Russians the Chechens take.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Why don’t we have good leverage if to some extent we are not saying that we’ve given them the green light on Chechnya, but we’ve certainly softened our rhetoric on Chechnya? So why don’t we have leverage there?
Steven Pifer: Well, let me take issue with that. I don’t think we have softened our rhetoric on Chechnya. I mean, the sorts of things that we are asking the Russians to do in terms of ending human rights abuses, holding people accountable who do commit abuses, in terms of looking for a dialogue, these are things that we were saying before September 11th.
The one aspect of our policy that’s changed is we do now explicitly recognize that there are international terrorist groups operating in Chechnya. Rightly or wrongly before September 11 we didn’t look at that, but as in many areas, September 11 really focused our attention.
Daljit Dhaliwal: So there’s been no trade-off?
Steven Pifer: I think we’ve maintained a position that’s pretty consistent with what we were seeing prior to September 11. And I think if you’d ask the Russians, the Russians certainly feel that they’re hearing the same things, that they’re hearing now is what they heard before, both in terms of what we say privately and publicly.
Daljit Dhaliwal: But before September the 11, would you have called the Chechen cause terrorist? Would that word have even been used, was that terminology there?
Steven Pifer: I think we would have said that some of the actions being committed were terrorist activities. And this goes back a number of years. For example, in 1995, led by Shamil Basayaev there was a raid where a group of Chechen fighters went into Budyannosk seized a hospital, took over 1,000 people hostage. And in the fighting that ensued, over 100 were killed. This to my mind is terrorism.
Daljit Dhaliwal: But in terms of the Chechen cause, has there been a change in positions on that?
Steven Pifer: In terms of…?
Daljit Dhaliwal: In terms of the Chechen cause that they’re fighting for an independent homeland, has there been a change in US policy on that after September 11th?
Steven Pifer: I think the basic change in the policy has been the need to distance themselves from and exclude those elements that have connections to al-Qaida and other international terrorist groups.
Daljit Dhaliwal: The US also has a presence in Georgia. That’s created a lot of suspicion in Russia. Putin basically has said, yes, you can come in, you can use Georgia to train the Georgian military in counter terrorist operations.
Steven Pifer: Right.
Daljit Dhaliwal: The proximity to Iraq hasn’t been lost on this. What are your views on that?
Steven Pifer: Well, the situation in Georgia is really related to the question of the Pankisi Gorge, which is close to the Georgian-Chechen border. And there are probably between five and 10,000 Chechens in that gorge most of whom are refugees from the conflict. But we also do believe that there are certain groups in there connected to the mujahadeen or other international terrorist groups who are funneling people, funneling money, into groups fighting in Chechnya.
This is a problem. And the Russians have told us this is a problem. And we agree. What we told the Russians is, you should not take unilateral military action, you should not take military action to address this problem. It’s a problem for Georgia to solve.
And the purpose that we now have American military trainers in Georgia is to help Georgia develop the capacity so that the Georgians can themselves go in and reassert control in the Pankisi Gorge.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Why isn’t it a matter for the Russians when what happens in Chechnya is an internal matter but what happens in Georgia isn’t an internal matter, why do we have to have US involvement here?
Steven Pifer: Well, we think because of the complexities of the Russian-Georgian relationship we don’t think it’s a good idea for the Russians to take military action to address the Pankisi Gorge.
Daljit Dhaliwal: You’re talking about Russian support for Abkhazia?
Steven Pifer: No, in this case, I’m talking about unilateral Russian military action in Pankisi. Again, what we are trying to do is encourage the Georgians to resolve that problem.
And your reference to Abkhazia, I mean, that sort of points to some of the complexity of Georgia where you have Abkhazia, a separatist region which is broken away or is trying to break away from Georgia, where the Russians have a presence there as peacekeepers basically trying to maintain a line of control between the Georgians and the Abkhaz. But again, against that backdrop, we don’t think Russian military action in Pankisi would help the situation.
Daljit Dhaliwal: The Georgian army really is a ragtag army that has to be built up from scratch. What happens if they are unable to bring the situation in Pankisi under control? Isn’t there a danger there of mission creep that American forces could be drawn into the war ultimately in Chechnya?
Steven Pifer: Well, I think we’re going to be very careful about that. We’re very mindful of keeping our mission focused on a particular objective. In this case, the objective is training the Georgians so that they have the capacity to do this.
And we have a very thought through program that we refer to as train and equip which we think is going to give them both the knowledge of the tactics so that they can go and conduct these operations, but also the equipment so that they can do it themselves. And from our perspective, from the Russians’ perspective, we think letting the Georgians do it is the right way to go.
Daljit Dhaliwal: And what is the timeline on that operation? What if it needs to change?
The operation itself, our first trainers began to arrive in May. It will take some months. I mean, this is not an easy operation building this capacity.
We have tried also, you referenced the concern on the part of the Russians about this American presence there. We have tried in this case to be extremely transparent with the Russians in terms of letting them understand roughly the size of the training mission, how long, what we’re trying to do.
So the Russians realized that we’re there simply to help the Georgians acquire the ability to deal with the problem in Pankisi.
Daljit Dhaliwal: But nevertheless the US establishing a new political presence in the Caucasus hasn’t been lost on a lot of people. What’s your view on that?
Steven Pifer: I think that there are some in Russia who still tend to look at the world through Cold War stereotypes, and they see this as a threat.
President Putin doesn’t. When President Putin was asked about this I think he made it fairly clear that he understands the rationale, he understands the limitations that we’ve imposed on this presidency, and he’s not objected.
And again, part of the reason why we’ve tried to be so transparent with the Russians is that the Russian government understands exactly what our trainers are there to do, and that there are no misconceptions.
Daljit Dhaliwal: So once the training is over, that will be the end of the operation?
Steven Pifer: Once the training is over, we are then at that point assume that the Georgians will have the capability to go in and deal with the problem. And that should resolve this issue.
Daljit Dhaliwal: And if they don’t, Putin could ask the Americans to stay and maybe get involved?
Steven Pifer: I think that would be unlikely, and I’m sure, you know, we’re very mindful about how we want to handle our presence there.
Dajit Dhaliwal: But that is a situation that could realistically speaking could…
Steven Pifer: Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question. We think that the Georgians, once they have the training and the equipment, are going to have the ability to do it themselves. And we’ve had some fairly extensive conversations with the Georgians about this.
Daljit Dhaliwal: How was Putin able to convince the military in the political elite that they shouldn’t be nervous about US presence, not just in the Caucasus but also in Central Asia? I mean, there were four former Soviet republics.
Steven Pifer: Well, I think in the case of Central Asia, it was interesting, because in the second part of September after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, as we began to look at Afghanistan and begin to move forces into the Central Asian area, you did see concerns expressed by some members of the Russian political elite.
And I think a number of those, again, were still seeing Central Asia as the object of a great game for US-Russian competition.
President Putin didn’t see it in that way, and he understood that the presence there was designed to deal with al-Qaida and the Taliban, and that was something I think he was prepared to support in large part because Russian objectives with regards to the Taliban and al-Qaida very much were consistent with the American objectives.
Daljit Dhaliwal: I just want to also turn to the issue of oil in the caucuses…
Steven Pifer: Right.
Daljit Dhaliwal: …and in Central Asia. I mean, that must be one of our concerns, we want to keep our eye on that one as well, don’t we?
Steven Pifer: Well, certainly when we look at the Caspian basin, we see a potential source of both oil and gas that can be very beneficial if we can move it to international markets. So that means when you look at the Caucasus…
Daljit Dhaliwal: It’s the world’s largest untapped oil reserve.
Steven Pifer: There’s huge potential there. And it’s going to be something that the United States, Europe and others are going to look to for future energy sources. So that gives us a very strong interest in promoting stability in the Caucasus, helping these countries develop in terms of consolidating democratic institutions, in terms of developing stronger economies because those countries, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan are going to be the transit routes for some of this energy.
Daljit Dhaliwal: That also lessens our dependence on the Iraqi oil.
Steven Pifer: Our view is that in terms of promoting more sources of energy that can only be beneficial for the world economy.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Our presence in Central Asia and in the Caucasus puts us in very close proximity to Iraq. What are your feelings on that?
Steven Pifer: Well, our military presence now in Central Asia is really focused on the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. I mean, that’s the proximity that’s geographically important to us.
Daljit Dhaliwal: And our presence in Central Asia and in the Caucasus wouldn’t serve as some kind of launching pad for an attack against the Iraqi regime?
Steven Pifer: Really the focus of these deployments have been Afghanistan.
Daljit Dhaliwal: And in terms of the overall picture, if Chechnya isn’t stabilized, this could really blow up in our faces not just in terms of becoming mini-Afghanistans but do you see it leading to global destabilization?
Steven Pifer: I’m not sure our concern about Chechnya is it’s destabilizing for Russia. It’s a distraction to Russia. President Putin has said he wants to bring Russia into the modern world, he wants to transform Russia in terms of a modern economy, a modern political system. Chechnya is going to…
Daljit Dhaliwal: Institutions have become less and less democratic since Putin took over.
Steven Pifer: Building democracy is a difficult process, and our view is Chechnya is not going to help, it’s going to hinder moving in that direction.
But it also, it’s a problem in terms of the Caucasus. As we look at that area, having this kind of war just north of the Georgian border, that isn’t going to help us promote stability in Georgia and in that region.
Daljit Dhaliwal: What are the chances of the two sides coming to the table and engaging in political dialogue?
Steven Pifer: Well, I think it’s a hard one to predict and I wouldn’t want to make a guess either way. I’m hopeful, but I don’t know exactly how to describe the odds to you, but it’s important that they do find a way to dialogue because that’s the only way we see Russia and Chechnya getting out of this tragedy.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Well, who’s to say that the extremist, pro-Taliban elements within the rebel ranks wouldn’t be the ones that actually rise into power?
Steven Pifer: Well this is one of the reasons why we think there needs to be a dialogue between Moscow and the moderate Chechens, so that you can exclude the radical elements from the equation.
Daljit Dhaliwal: And Russia has said that the war is over, what is all that about?
Steven Pifer: Well, the Russians have said that they’re going to begin to withdraw some of their military forces, that they can wind the conflict down. I think that’s a proposition that still remains to be seen because we still continue to see reports of military actions being conducted.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Why would they say that if the war’s going on? Is Putin just deluding himself?
Steven Pifer: Ah, I think President Putin is fairly smart about the situation there. That may express more of a hope – because they would like to wind this down – rather than an expectation. We’ll have to see.
Daljit Dhaliwal: So they’re winding the war down, but the war is certainly not over as we saw in our film. The war is very much continuing to claim victims across the board, on all sides.
Steven Pifer: Yeah, that’s right. We see the conflict continuing and again, that’s why we think there has to be some kind of a dialogue and negotiated settlement because the war- the level of conflict may drop, but it’s hard for us to see how it’s going to end without some kind of a political solution.
Daljit Dhaliwal: America very much wants to engage with Russia, wants to see it move West-wards. That’s what they say they’d like to do – do you believe them?
Steven Pifer: I think yes. And I think where President Putin is coming from is he wants to modernize Russia, he wants to restore some of the power that Russia’s had in the past. So he looks at things like economic reform and I think he realizes, for example, that the market economy is the way that Russia has to go if it wants to build a robust economy. So he’s prepared to do things like bring Russia into the World Trade Organization. Likewise, he looks at legal reform-
Daljit Dhaliwal: Would we support that bid, for Russia to get into the WTO?
Steven Pifer: We are very supportive of Russia’s bid to enter the World Trade Organization. Now it has to be on the basis of norms that we ask of any other country trying to join. From our perspective that’s a way to underpin and encourage economic reform within Russia, which we think is ultimately going to be-
Daljit Dhaliwal: So we’re talking about engagement, the kind of engagement that we had with China, in terms of getting it to the WTO, completely disregarding human rights?
Steven Pifer: Well, we’re talking about a process that brings the Russian economy into the global economy, but we’re not doing it in a way that sets aside world human rights and again we have continued to raise this issue with the Russians and we will continue to do so. Until there is an end to the sorts of abuses that you saw in the film in Chechnya, we’re going to continue talking to the Russians about these problems and about how this is an obstacle not just in the development in US-Russian relations, but also how that’s going to be an obstacle in Russia’s desire to integrate more closely to Europe and the world.
Daljit Dhaliwal: But, at the same time, we see this rise in nationalism in Russia, hardly compatible with the advent of democratic institutions. It’s not a very good example of moving towards the West and democracy.
Steven Pifer: It’s a bumpy process. There’s both good news and there’s bad news. For example, on legal reform, President Putin and his administration are working through with the Russian parliament, legislation that would truly make the Russian court system independent, would introduce trial by jury on a widespread scale – very positive for the judicial branch in Russia.
So, we’re seeing some setbacks, we’re also seeing some progress. And understand the nature of the transformation that Russia’s going through – it’s changing the economy, it’s changing the political system, it’s changing the whole way that Russia engages with the outside world. Each one of those processes is very difficult to conduct. They’re trying to do three simultaneously against a very difficult backdrop and Chechnya’s not helping that.
Daljit Dhaliwal: All those processes that you described have left a huge mess in Russia. I mean we have some people who have benefited incredibly, become millionaires, but the vast majority of Russians are living in appalling situations of poverty.
Steven Pifer: I think there was an expectation and what we’ve seen in other countries that used to have the communist economic system is that the transformation is very difficult. If you look at the central European economies – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic – all took a nosedive in economic terms as they began this transformation. At a certain point, it bottoms out and they begin to realize growth and they begin to see the benefits of the change.
In the last couple of years, you’ve actually seen some fairly significant economic growth in Russia and we’re hopeful that is a sign that some of the changes that they’ve imposed over the last ten years in terms of re-structuring the economy are actually beginning to take effect.
Daljit Dhaliwal: And how long do you think the United States should stand by while these processes are going on? Is there going to come a time when we say twenty, thirty, forty years down the line, Russia’s experiment with democratic institutions, with democracy hasn’t worked, it’s time for us to pull the plug?.
Steven Pifer: Actually, I’m an optimist about this. I think the process is going to be a long one – longer than we expected or hoped for back in the early 1990s, after the break-up of the Soviet Union. But I think Russia is moving in the right direction – not as quickly as we would like – and the important thing, it’s in our interest that Russia do so.
If you look at Russia developing modern democratic institutions, a market economy that fits nicely into the global economy, it begins to adopt a foreign policy that is supportive of Western policies. And we’re seeing that. We’re seeing it in counter-terrorism, in strategic arms reductions, in joint efforts in the Middle East.
That’s the kind of Russia that we want to see develop. They’re already a partner in important areas and we want to encourage that.
Daljit Dhaliwal:The Chechens have been fighting for independence for quite a long time. They have a history that stretches back a thousand years, their own language, their own culture. Why shouldn’t the US support them in their bid for freedom?
Steven Pifer: Well, we look at the Chechens and we see a situation where there is an effort at separatism. We made a decision back in 1991 that we would support each of the states of the former Soviet Union in the context of their current borders, to support their territorial integrity.
And our fear is that if we acknowledge the right of the Chechens or another group unilaterally to secede from Russia, you open up a can of worms and you might have other parts of Russia begin to move in that direction. We don’t think that’s a healthy process for Russia, we don’t think that’s a healthy process for Europe.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Why not?
Steven Pifer: Because when you look at that unraveling it brings in all signs of concerns and you don’t want to have a repetition, for example, of the Yugoslavia experience. And again, when we look at Russia increasingly moving in the direction of being a partner of the United States, we see that Russia- it should be a strong Russia. We want to have a strong partner that’s working with us.
Daljit Dhaliwal: Ambassador Steven Pifer, thank you very much for joining us on Wide Angle.
Steven Pifer: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed being here.