Regional analysts predict that the recent comments from Russia’s top brass that Moscow will preemptively strike “terrorist bases” anywhere in the world will likely cause alarm in all neighboring countries, particularly Georgia.
On September 12, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov confirmed that Russia is prepared to counter potential threats by launching first strikes, instead of waiting to be attacked. “We’re at war now, and we have been attacked,” Ivanov said. “And excuse me, in war, all means [available to fight the enemy] are good,” he added to justify Russia’s right for a preemptive action. Earlier, the chief of Russia’s General Staff, Yuri Baluyevsky, pledged to take any action to eliminate terrorist bases in any region at the earliest stage.
Baluyevsky did not identify the location of the bases, saying it would not be prudent to divulge this information prematurely “lest the terrorists run away.” But many Russian and foreign defense experts argue that Russia’s sharply limited global reach means the military’s warning will apply in practice to the former Soviet lands in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Most commentators agree that the main target of Moscow’s threats is Georgia, whose government has long annoyed the Kremlin by its activist reconquista policy. They also recall Putin’s ultimatum to Tbilisi in 2002, which demanded an end to the activities of Chechen fighters in Georgia’s lawless Pankisi Gorge, which borders Chechnya. Now this theme appears to have resurfaced again. According to Russian Foreign Ministry Special Envoy Lev Mironov, Moscow is not convinced that all Chechen rebels have ceased operations in the Pankisi Gorge. Russia’s suspicions were roused, Mironov continued, by the recent remarks of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, who allegedly pledged, in a Georgian TV broadcast, “The Chechens will be fighting side-by-side with the brotherly Georgian people against Russia’s imperial ways.”
Still more ominous are the statements made by some top Russian officials and media outlets that the Beslan tragedy and the events in separatist South Ossetia appear to be connected — and probably even coordinated — from the same center, possibly somewhere in Georgia. “There are no concrete facts so far supporting the idea that these events are connected and have been planned at one center,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Golos Rossii radio. “But the very consequences of the crisis, created in South Ossetia by Georgian leadership, and the hostage taking in North Ossetia . . . prompt one to think that this is not a mere coincidence,” Lavrov continued. According to the top Russian diplomat, a dual crisis is “in the interest of those who want to destabilize the North Caucasus.”
For one Moscow observer, Russia’s threats of preemptive action and the information campaign seeking to link Georgia with Beslan are two elements of a Kremlin strategy that aims “to prepare the ground for military operations against ‘terrorist infrastructure’ in the Georgian territory.” But other analysts believe Moscow is simply sending a strong signal to Tbilisi to back off in South Ossetia.
At the September 6 meeting with Western Russia-watchers, Putin strongly criticized the Saakashvili government for its policies in South Ossetia and said he foresaw a scenario in which Georgian troops moved into the renegade region. “I suspect they may use force. It won’t be productive even if in the initial stage they capture the capital, Tskhinvali. It will be a long and exhausting process,” he said.
The Georgian leadership’s reaction indicated it had received the message but was determined to stay the course. The speaker of the Georgian parliament, Nino Burjanadze, said Moscow was intentionally “whipping up anti-Georgian hysteria.” Similarly, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili noted, “While establishing order, Russia should know where its territory ends and where the neighboring country’s territory begins.”
The newly born “Putin doctrine” has likely made other neighboring countries uneasy. On August 8, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that no country, “no matter how powerful,” is allowed to adopt a one-sided approach to combating terrorism. Turkey’s concern is understandable, since Ankara believes its “near abroad” overlaps with Moscow’s. “An angry bear has started pondering a course of revenge,” apprehensively notes Yusuf Kanli, the editor-in-chief of the Turkish Daily News. A number of leading Turkish foreign policy analysts have speculated about where Moscow may target first, and most pointed to Georgia. But “is carrying out preemptive strikes against one’s neighbor possible?” asks Milliyet’s columnist Sami Kohen. Significantly, Ankara has a security agreement with Georgia.
(RIA Novosti, August 12; Izvestiya, August 12; Politcom.ru, August 10; Strana.ru, August 9, 12; Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 9; Polit.ru, August 9; Turkish Daily News, August 10; Milliyet, August 10.)