Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled an end to the storm of recriminations with which Moscow had initially met Washington’s decision to supply and train Georgian counterterrorist forces. Thus far, the sequence of moves in Moscow with regard to the U.S.-Georgia situation closely resembles Moscow’s response to America’s military deployments in Central Asia after September 11.
In both situations, top Russian officials impulsively rejected any such U.S. decisions, also declaring explicitly or implicitly that the countries at issue constituted Russia’s own turf. When the indignation was exposed as impotent, and the United States went ahead on the basis of direct agreements with the countries concerned, Putin stepped in to accept the inevitable. His is not only a face-saving, damage-limiting exercise, but also an effort to retain a measure of influence on the subsequent course of events in the regions affected, and to maintain the ongoing dialogue with the United States and its allies.
On March 1, using the CIS summit for a sounding board, Putin declared that the upcoming deployment of U.S. special troops to Georgia on an equipping-and-training mission “no tragedy” for Russia. “Once it became possible in Central Asia, why not in Georgia?” he asked rhetorically, seemingly also making virtue out of necessity. “We support an antiterrorist effort in Pankisi, irrespective of who conducts it, whether American or European partners or Georgia directly.” Putin went on to state that, in his understanding, the U.S. mission would be limited to a few dozen personnel. Washington and Tbilisi had, however, already announced that some 200 U.S. special troops would be involved. The goal is to create, in the near term, four Georgian battalions to fight suspected terrorist groups in the Pankisi Gorge.
Putin could not, however, resist attempting to humiliate Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze publicly at the summit. In front of all the other presidents, he berated Shevardnadze for allegedly failing to provide Russia with advance information on the U.S.-Georgia move. In fact, the move has been attended by maximum publicity, and the official disclosures precede the actual start of the mission, which is scheduled to get underway later this month. Putin then kept Shevardnadze–his senior by some thirty years–waiting three hours before deigning to receive him for their prescheduled bilateral meeting.
Long before Washington and Tbilisi had made this move, Moscow was claiming that Georgia harbored Chechen and “international” terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge. It demanded that Georgia “invite” the Russian army for antiterrorist operations in Pankisi and deeper into Georgian territory, threatened to mount such operations unilaterally and occasionally conducted air raids into Georgia. The accusations culminated in January-February, raising the possibility of a Russian military incursion under antiterrorist pretenses with the advent of spring weather in the mountains. At that point the United States stepped in, accepting the possibility that al-Qaida and/or Taliban terrorists were ensconced in Pankisi, and announcing its decision to enable Georgia to deal with the problem. Moscow, having portrayed the Pankisi situation as an intolerable threat to Russia, could not very well sustain its protests against an effort to suppress that threat.
Sergei Kazyanov of the Moscow-based Institute for National Security and Strategic Research has captured the essence of the problem: “Moscow has become a prisoner of its own rhetoric. We kept saying that Chechen rebels are equivalent to al-Qaida terrorists, and must be dealt with. We assumed that the United States would turn a blind eye while we took care of that business in Georgia, on our own border. Instead, we [inadvertently] opened the door for Washington to step in. Once again, the Americans have turned the tables on us.”
Shevardnadze, addressing his country on March 4, highlighted the contrast between Moscow’s initial and Putin’s ultimate reaction to the U.S.-Georgian decision on special troop deployment. Describing Putin’s recognition of Georgia’s sovereign right to choose its allies as “truly courageous,” Shevardnadze went on: “I cannot help expressing astonishment at those unhealthy, hysterical reactions…. I welcome President Putin’s calm and very sensible attitude toward this development. Georgia has always been and will remain a friendly neighbor to Russia. We are always ready to respect Russia’s interests, expecting only one thing in response. We want Russia to respect Georgia’s interests within the territory of Georgia itself.” This caveat evidently refers, first, to Abkhazia and other local conflicts that Moscow has sparked in Georgia and, second, to the Russian military bases that Georgia wants out.
Whether Putin’s signal is meant to change the nature of Moscow’s policy is far from certain. That same day, five Russian warplanes violated Georgia’s air space in two incidents, one over the Kodori Gorge and one over Pankisi. The next day, Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for Political Research and a senior member of the Kremlin’s public relations team, made a two-pronged statement, accepting the logic of the U.S.-Georgian effort to deal with the Pankisi problem, but threatening reprisals in case the U.S. military presence in Georgia develops further. In that case, Markov warned, “Russia would significantly increase its own military presence in Abkhazia” (Tbilisi Radio, Rustavi-2 Television, Prime News, Interfax, ORT Television, March 1-4; Christian Science Monitor, March 4; see the Monitor, January 30, February 6, 18, 27-28).
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