- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

Russia, like the United States, has a right to act pre-emptively against terrorism outside its borders, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday, but that it must be ready to explain and justify its actions.

Both he and President Bush have criticized other actions taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin since 338 hostages died at a school in Beslan, Russia, including steps to centralize more political power in the Kremlin.

Referring to Russian claims to a right to act pre-emptively against terrorism anywhere in the world, Mr. Powell told editors and reporters at The Washington Times that such action “is part of the inherent right of self-defense” enjoyed by every country.

But, he said, “You’ll have to make your case — once you’ve pre-empted something — to the world and to your own people that it was the right thing to do.”

Just as the United States reserves “the right to stop somebody who is coming to do us bodily harm and we know it,” the Russians “will have to do whatever they think is in their interest, and then be prepared to defend it to their people and the court of world opinion.”

Mr. Powell said a top Russian general may have gone too far when he said last week that Moscow was ready to act “around the world.”

“I think the Russians may have overstated how they might pre-empt, and they sort of pulled the statement back a little bit, because of certain nervousness created in the international community,” he said.

Mr. Powell also conceded that the Bush administration had been guilty of poor timing when it publicly urged Russia last week to negotiate with moderate Chechens while hunting down the terrorists.

The comment prompted an angry reaction from Moscow, where tempers still were frayed by a wave of terrorist attacks — including the near-simultaneous bombing of two commercial airliners and a Moscow subway bomb — that culminated in the Beslan tragedy.

“We, perhaps, might have been a little more sensitive in the heat of the moment,” Mr. Powell said.

“When it created a bit of a problem last Friday,” he added, he called Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to explain that “it was not in an effort to embarrass them or put them on the spot.”

Mr. Lavrov responded that he understood and declared the matter “over,” Mr. Powell said.

“What we said last week was that terrorism has to be fought, murderers have to be dealt with, but ultimately a political solution has to be found in Chechnya,” Mr. Powell explained.

“This is not anything the Russians had not said themselves, but at the time it was said, it hit them in the middle of this school, aircraft, thing and they snapped back,” the secretary said.

During the interview, Mr. Powell repeated his and Mr. Bush’s urgings that the Russian government not respond to the terrorist threats “in a way that threatens to undercut democratic institutions.”

Mr. Putin last week announced plans to strengthen his control over Russia’s parliament and its far-flung regional governments, drawing criticism from opponents that he was exploiting the terrorist attacks to augment his own powers.

When Washington reacts to such “significant” decisions, “we are not just communicating to President Putin, we are making statements to the world,” Mr. Powell said.

“We’ll continue to speak out when we think it is appropriate.”

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