Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 230

Using tactics reminiscent of 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia and 1979 in Afghanistan, the Kremlin would like the Georgian government to request the intervention of Russian troops on Georgian territory. As in those historic cases, Moscow claims to be motivated by the twin goals of helping the national government “restore order” and safeguarding Moscow’s own security interests in a “zone of legitimate interest.” As in them, the Kremlin failed to obtain a legally valid invitation and had to fabricate “appeals for assistance” after having sent in the troops.

On December 8 over Russian state television, Colonel-General Valery Manilov, first deputy chief of staff of Russia’s armed forces, explicitly sought such an invitation from the Georgian government. Using the propaganda thesis that Chechen rebel forces are massed on the Georgian side of the border, Manilov went on to claim that those forces are “more than sufficient to destabilize the situation in all of Georgia,” while government forces are “patently insufficient to restore order.” Russia would, therefore, intervene with troops “if an [interstate] agreement, an invitation, a request, an appeal for help is forthcoming. In that case we will help destroy the terrorists.”

The absence of any such an invitation notwithstanding, Manilov outlined an intervention scenario in which Russian forces would converge on northern Georgia’s Kakheti Region from Russia and from the Russian bases situated in southern Georgia. Those bases, Manilov remarked, are capable of such intervention even after the cuts in heavy weaponry, mandated by the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe.

On the same day in St. Petersburg, Federation Council Yegor Stroev criticized visiting Georgian parliamentarians for “Georgia’s unresponsiveness to Russia’s request to let Russian troops into the territory occupied by Chechen rebels.” And, on December 9, the commander of Russian forces in the North Caucasus, General Valery Baranov, declared on television that “if such an appeal is received, it will be considered by the president of the Russian Federation.” The Kremlin meanwhile asserts–in the words of top presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky–that it considers Georgia “a sovereign state and a friend of Russia,” on which basis it offers military assistance “against the danger posed to Russia and Georgia by separatism.”

Moscow officials and Yastrzhembsky personally are trying to build a case that Chechen forces have seized a part of Georgia’s territory to establish a Chechen statelet and threaten Russia from there. That argument is designed to excuse a possible Russian military move into Georgia on two grounds: as legitimate defense of Russia and as protection of Georgia’s territorial integrity, even as Moscow sustains the Abkhaz and South Ossetian secessions. On December 4, Yastrzhembsky was asked whether the “1,500 to 2,000 Chechen terrorists” in Georgia’s Kakheti Region were the same as the 2,000 that Manilov had just said were still surviving in Chechnya itself after the Russian army’s “victories,” or “additional ones.” “Additional,” Yastrzhembsky tersely replied. On December 7, the Yastrzhembsky asserted that only “1,000 to 1,500 militants remain in Chechnya while 1,500 to 2,000 have been staying in [Georgia’s] Pankisi Gorge.” With that, the Kremlin itself is insinuating that the bulk of Chechen rebel forces is now in Georgia.

In the same statement, Yastrzhembsky asserted that “public opinion rightfully expects those who conduct the special antiterrorism operation to strike the final blow, which can only be the elimination of all these men.” That corollary appeared designed to prepare Russian public opinion for a military operation in Georgia.

These statements show that Moscow has progressed from hidden to open threats, following President Vladimir Putin’s failure on December 1 at the CIS summit in Minsk to intimidate President Eduard Shevardnadze into authorizing a Russian military operation in northern Georgia. The Kremlin offers in return to rescind the visa regulations it imposed on Georgia as of December 5. Those regulations not only impose heavy economic costs on Georgia, but also cement the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Cancellation of the visa regulations would seem to offer Georgia an illusory, short-term relief in return for forfeiting her national independence, should it accept Russian military intervention.

The Georgian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s chief spokesman Avtandil Napetvaridze told Russian media on December 9 that Tbilisi regards the idea of Russian military operations in Georgia as “absolutely unacceptable.” Recalling that Moscow had first requested in November 1999 to move Russian forces into Chechnya through Georgia’s territory, Napetvaridze cited Shevardnadze’s view that such an operation would drag Georgia into a conflagration and expand the Chechnya war into a general Caucasus war. Foreign Affairs Minister Irakly Menagarishvili for his part underscored that “what is important here is the position of the international community as arbiter.”

The Georgian authorities are dealing with criminality in Pankisi by using commensurate police measures. Situated in the Kakheti Region’s Akhmeta district, the Pankisi Gorge contains six Kist-Chechen villages, six ethnic Georgian villages and four ethnic Ossetian villages. The Chechen villages have a population of some 6,000 Kists–ethnic Chechens, citizens of Georgia–plus some 7,000 civilian refugees from Chechnya. In recent days, Kists and/or Chechens have abducted five Georgians and two Spanish businessmen for ransom. Georgia’s Internal Affairs and National Security Ministries are dealing with that that situation in the gorge and have set up checkpoints around the gorge to avoid any possible spillover of crime. The National Security Council in Tbilisi has decided against introducing army and internal troops in Pankisi. Moscow had been urging that potentially destabilizing step (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Georgian Television, Tbilisi Radio, Itar-Tass, RIA, Russian Television, ORT, December 7-10; see the Monitor, October 24, November 16, December 1, 4-6, 8; Fortnight in Review, September 22, November 3, December 1).