Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 6

By Vladimir Socor

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest associates are again calling for a military operation inside Georgia. This, by most counts, is the third cycle of such threats–not including incursions without warning–since Putin became president. Each time, Washington has made it clear that a Russian military intervention in Georgia is unacceptable. Washington wants to buttress Georgia’s security–the recently launched Train-and-Equip program, for example. Moscow still hopes to gain a free military hand in Georgia and to either redirect Georgia’s Western bent or maintain a level of instability that would itself accomplish this.

Two factors seem to have triggered the current cycle of threats. First, a flareup of fighting in Chechnya, which Moscow blames on Chechen and “international terrorists” infiltrating from a sanctuary in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. And, second, apparent calculations that Washington this time might–in a package deal aimed at a Kremlin blessing on U.S. action against Iraq–tolerate what it has not so far. If, in October 2001 and February 2002, Moscow tried to equate its actions in Georgia with American operations in Afghanistan, it now justifies them with Washington’s recently unveiled preemption doctrine.

From July 28 to August 1, for the first time this year, Chechnya saw a full-scale combat engagement. Russian forces intercepted some sixty Chechen fighters in Georgia’s unpopulated Kerigo Gorge, some 15 kilometers from the Russian-Georgian border. The incident seemed to expose gaps in both countries’ border protection systems. Regular Russian troops spotted the Chechens, and only after a Georgian shepherd alerted them. Neither Russian nor Georgian border guards saw anything. Both sides concur on this.

Much circumstantial evidence suggests that the Dagestan-Chechnya boundary–physically easier to cross and loosely guarded mainly by local police–is the sieve through which most of the external assistance reaches Chechen fighters. The terrain is more open and negotiable there, and some of the guards are notoriously open to negotiation. Even so, Georgia does admit to daunting problems in the Pankisi Gorge. There, ordinary criminal groups among local Kist-Chechens and Chechen refugees have joined forces in the villages. Several hundred Chechen fighters lurk in uninhabited areas to the north. Essentially confined there, these fighters do from time to time seek ways of escape. Tbilisi openly acknowledges that it must tackle the Pankisi problem soon, lest criminality spreads cancer-like from that remote gorge, and certainly before the presence of even a small number of mainly inactive Chechen fighters supplies the pretext for a Russian casus belli.

From July 29 to August 5, Russian planes conducted five bombing-and-strafing raids on Georgian mountainous areas along the border, hitting no particular targets. OSCE monitors witnessed some of the air strikes. Russian spokesmen contradicted each other as usual, some trying to deny and others trying to justify the strikes.

On July 29, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov–one of Putin’s most trusted lieutenants–declared that he saw no solution other than sending Russian forces across the border into Georgia, with special troops leading the way. The same day, Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky accused Tbilisi of telling “blatant lies,” and went on to assert that “friendly and stable relations” were possible with the “Georgian people.” On July 31, Putin himself used the same rhetorical device, used regularly in the Soviet era, contrasting the government and the public attitudes.

Also on July 31, Foreign Minister Ivanov attempted to persuade U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that “terrorist incursions” from Pankisi into Chechnya are equivalent to those from Pakistan into India’s Kashmir, that Georgia must either be held responsible for “aggression” against Russia or be “helped by the international community to wipe out the terrorist bases.” The message–implicit in Ivanov’s public statement and probably more explicit in private–was that Russian troops were prepared on behalf of the “international community” to suppress “terrorism” in Georgia.

On August 1, the commander of Russia’s airborne forces, Colonel-General Georgy Shpak, publicly announced that his forces were ready to conduct a “special operation” in Pankisi if ordered to do so. Putin’s close associate Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, declared the same day that Russia could restore order in Pankisi with its own troops, and that the upper chamber would approve a presidential request to do so.

On August 2, Margelov clarified his position by saying that Russia would need international consent as well as Georgian participation in such an operation. The clarification brought Margelov’s position into accord with that of Russia’s Foreign Affairs and Defense ministries. The latter had all along called for the putative operation to be a “joint” Russian-Georgian one, so as to create the appearance of Georgian consent. And, on August 3, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov–who is also closely linked to Putin–cited Israel’s military actions in the West Bank as an argument for Russian preemptive strikes in Pankisi.

The same day, Igor Ivanov described Pankisi as a safe haven for “international terrorist organizations” in general, offered to send in Russian troops, and warned Tbilisi to “make a choice” as to where it stands in the “antiterrorist fight.” The next day, August 4, Margelov called for deploying–not just in Pankisi, but along the Georgia-Russia border on the Georgian side as well–an international force of Russian, Georgian and [unspecified] other troops, for a joint operation comparable to that in Afghanistan. Margelov wanted also to “use the UN Security Council mechanism”–that is, American approval–for launching such an operation.

Washington has made clear that it will not tolerate an assault on Georgia under “antiterrorism” pretenses. Secretary Powell, responding to Igor Ivanov’s July 31 statements, assured him that the United States would continue to work with Georgia on resolving the Pankisi problem. On August 1, the State Department issued a strong statement of support for Georgia’s sovereignty and inviolability. Citing the U.S. Train-and-Equip program, the statement underscored that it is up to Georgia to conduct any antiterrorist operations within its own territory. The same day, the commander of Georgia’s border troops, Lieutenant-General Valery Chkheidze, just back from Washington, announced that the United States has allocated an additional US$10 million to strengthen the protection of the Georgia-Russia border in the Chechen sector.

Even as Russian threats reached the highest pitch, a group of U.S. congressmen visited with President Eduard Shevardnadze and looked at the U.S. Green Berets’ Train-and-Equip activities. During the visit, Security Council Secretary Tedo Japaridze told journalists that he did not expect Russia to take such a reckless step as a military operation in Georgia, but, in that hypothetical event, Georgia would seek international assistance.

An article in the August 2 issue of the Kremlin mouthpiece Rossiiskaya Gazeta expressed strong disappointment with the State Department’s statement–and with U.S. policy generally. It complained that Georgia, at Shevardnadze’s personal initiative, is turning into a strategic outpost of the United States in the Caucasus. The U.S. intends to “start a war in Iraq” unilaterally, just as it had previously acted in other parts of the world “without the international community’s consent.” Again referring to the State Department’s statement on Georgia, the paper cautioned Washington against “ignoring the interests of its friends and allies, whom it may need in the future.” The article appeared designed to suggest that Moscow had expected a tradeoff over Georgia, and that it might continue to seek a quid-pro-quo for eventually acquiescing in U.S. operations in Iraq or elsewhere.

Georgia’s position–as articulated by Shevardnadze, Foreign Affairs Minister Irakli Menagharishvili, Parliament Chairwoman Nino Burjanadze and other officials in recent days–includes five main elements. First, no consent to Russian or “joint” Russian-Georgian military operations within Georgia. The Russian military’s methods as seen in Chechnya, as well as Georgia’s own bitter experience with Russian troops in Abkhazia, preclude such consent. Second, Georgia welcomes the other forms, long underway, of antiterrorist and security cooperation with Russia. These include exchanges of intelligence data, permanent communications among border troops, and legal assistance in apprehending suspected terrorists and/or criminals on either country’s territory. Third, U.S.-trained Georgian troops should within the next few months be capable of taking control of Pankisi. The Georgian government gives Chechen fighters until the end of this summer to surrender, leave, or face the consequences of a Georgian operation this coming autumn. Fourth, Tbilisi will continue to make mandatory legal distinctions between the several thousand peaceful Chechen refugees–mostly women, children and elderly–and the several hundred combatants. Noncombatant, noncriminal refugees–the majority–may either avail themselves of refugee status or choose voluntary repatriation. And, fifth, Moscow should realize that it bears responsibility for the plight of its own citizens, uprooted by indiscriminate military attacks on their villages. The situation in Pankisi would seem to be more a consequence than the cause of the continuing war in Chechnya.

Extending that war into Pankisi would plunge Georgia into chaos, and could seriously aggravate Russia’s own problems. Internationally, a Russian military intervention in Georgia under “antiterrorist” pretenses would understandably be viewed as aiming to restore Moscow’s dominance and “punish” Georgia’s pro-Western leaders. This would be a severe setback to Russia-U.S. and Russia-NATO cooperation. The misuse of antiterrorist rhetoric to justify such an intervention could, moreover, destroy the value of Russian political support for genuine antiterrorist operations–underway or planned–by the United States and its allies in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Vladimir Socor, a senior fellow and long-time senior analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, formerly a senior research analyst with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich, is a specialist in the non-Russian former republics of the USSR, CIS affairs and ethnic conflicts.