BERLIN, Dec 19, 1999 -- (Reuters) They met ostensibly to talk about preventing future conflicts, but the Group of Eight foreign ministers in Berlin on Friday found it difficult to grapple with the one at hand, in the Russian separatist region of Chechnya.
The ministers from Japan and the West sharply criticized Russia for its war against Chechnya but shied away from taking any concrete measures in response.
"We worry the medicine could be worse than the illness," one Western official said.
The world's seven leading economies kept up tough language against Russia - their partner in the G8 - that has intensified in recent weeks, but talk of economic or other concrete moves was absent.
"Many of us demand an immediate cease-fire, intended to be permanent, throughout the territory of Chechnya," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters.
LOOKING FOR SIGNAL
"At this critical juncture, we therefore look for a clear signal from the Russian government that it has understood the need to reach a political settlement as soon as possible," he continued. "Such a signal is of the utmost importance for all of our relations in the future."
Western diplomats say they fear tougher action could harm wider relations with Moscow without helping to improve the situation in Chechnya, where Russia says it is fighting to root out terrorism.
"Do you think anything we do will really change Russian policy in Chechnya?" one official said.
The underlying caution always stems from fears about rattling Russia's vast nuclear arsenal and still unsteady recent tradition of democracy. Sunday's forthcoming parliamentary election has further complicated Western diplomatic efforts.
U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said Washington would not halt its aid because it went to good causes such as boosting the safety of Russia's nuclear weapons or helping non-governmental organisations.
Germany's Fischer has taken a cautious line since the beginning of the Chechen war, calling it a mistake but saying it is essential to European security that the West maintain good relations with Moscow.
Ivanov, who earlier this year called NATO's war against Yugoslavia "barbarism", has at times appeared pained to have to face repeated questions about Chechnya, which Russia regards an internal matter.
At the last minute, the dapper diplomat who spent a decade in Spain skipped a scheduled appearance at the meeting's closing news conference.
"He clearly didn't want to be subjected to the kind of questioning in public that he got in private," a Western official said.
Russia had itself tried to claim the moral high ground during NATO's war in Yugoslavia, when it bitterly denounced the Western alliance for the fighting but took few concrete steps in retaliation.
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