Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 48

Official Moscow stands before an uneasy process of adjustment to the irreversibility of Georgia’s independence. In words at least, tactically perhaps, President Vladimir Putin seems to be initiating that process. Catalyzed by the entry of the U.S. military in Georgia, the adjustment in Moscow begins from a low point indeed.

The U.S. Special Forces’ arrival is only one symbol of Georgia’s own resolve to move from Russia’s orbit into that of the West. This resolve has withstood a decade of military pressure, covert operations, economic harassment and psychological warfare against Georgia under two Russian presidents. Putin made it a personal project two years ago to subdue Georgia by stepping up those manifold pressures. It was Putin himself who began “seeing” thousands of “international terrorists” operating from bases in Georgia, who singled out Georgia for economic sanctions, canceling visa-free travel–while exempting secessionist Abkhazia and South Ossetia from such sanctions–and who still presides over Russia’s violation of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe decisions by retaining the Gudauta military base. Putin’s closest lieutenants–such as Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov–arm-twisted Tbilisi into “requesting” the prolongation of Russian “peacekeepers'” mandate in Abkhazia last month, and repeatedly demanded an official “invitation” to the Russian Army to mount “special operations” on Georgian territory. Putin “did not bother to hide from foreign visitors his hatred of Georgia’s President Eduard Shevardnadze,” as the Clinton administration’s special envoy Stephen Sestanovich recently recounted (The New York Times, October 4, 2001).

As recently as last November, an analysis by the Kremlin’s public relations team stated that the Russian generals were justified in “hating” Shevardnadze, and for the same reasons–his contribution to the collapse of the Soviet position in Central Europe–but that the generals’ unauthorized air strikes on Georgia were complicating Russia’s relations with the United States (see the Monitor, November 30, 2001). At that point, with that remark by Gleb Pavlovsky’s team, an incipient shift could be discerned in the Kremlin’s policy priorities. That shift found clear expression in Putin’s decision to accept on March 1, however grudgingly, the deployment of American Special Force troops to Georgia (see the Monitor, March 5). As seasoned adviser Viktor Kremenyuk then explained, “President Putin knows what is possible and what is not. Good relations with the United States are more valuable to us. It would be foolish to complicate them.” He told a governmental newspaper (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, March 2).

“Analysts have long realized that the presence of American [troops] in Georgia is unavoidable,” the governmental mouthpiece Rossiiskie Vesti discovers retrospectively in its current issue. It goes on to remonstrate with the foreign affairs and defense ministers, Igor and Sergei Ivanov, for having unwisely claimed that Osama bin Laden might be hiding and operating in the Pankisi Gorge. That claim, intended to obtain carte blanche for a Russian “antiterrorist” operation in Georgia, backfired: “such statements to the Americans had the effect of a red rag to a bull,” ultimately justifying the deployment of U.S. troops to Georgia. For a silver lining, this analysis sees the possibility of a small U.S. payoff to Russia’s impoverished military. As they did for the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the Americans might pay Russia for Soviet-vintage military hardware to equip Georgian forces, in preparation for an antiterrorist operation in Pankisi (Rossiiskie Vesti, March 6-12).

Such a scenario is totally anachronistic in Georgia, however, as Deputy Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili pointed out yesterday. Should any antiterrorist operation prove necessary in Pankisi, the Georgian troops intend to use U.S. tactics and modern American-supplied equipment, and would only act after completing the U.S.-run training in Georgia.

Although the size of the American contingent is small, its arrival represents a historic watershed for the South Caucasus. It is the first U.S. military deployment there, and the first by any Western force since the region’s countries became independent a decade ago. The 200 American special troops–mostly Green Berets–will equip and train four Georgian rapid-deployment battalions, totaling 2,000 soldiers, for antiterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. The year-long program, starting this month, forms the centerpiece of a military reform effort led and funded by the United States.

Except for Turkey, America’s European allies are lagging far behind in the effort to anchor Georgia to the West in security terms. On March 7, NATO’s secretary-general, Lord George Robertson, is urging the European members of the alliance to support this American effort. Receiving Georgia’s Parliament Chairwoman Nino Burjanadze in Brussels on March 7, Robertson was cited as stating that Georgia’s stability and security are important to the alliance, and suggested NATO’s European member countries can participate in any antiterrorist operations in the Pankisi Gorge (Burjanadze interview with Rustavi-2 television, cited by Interfax, March 7). In an unrelated, though now overlapping development, a large-scale NATO exercise is scheduled to be held in Georgia this coming summer (Georgian Television, Tbilisi Radio, Prime-News, Western news agencies, March 5-7; see the Monitor, January 30, February 6, 18, 27-28, March 5).