Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 225

Overruling the Kremlin’s public relations consultants, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sided with the generals who bombed Georgian territory on November 27-28. The consultants–Gleb Pavlovsky’s group, with the officious organ Strana.ru–had publicly assessed the “stealthy” bombardment as ill-timed and lacking proper diplomatic preparation. They advised Putin to discipline the generals responsible, demonstrate that Russia knows about civilian control of the military and about international law, and try to build an international case for open, officially authorized Russian “antiterrorism” operations in Georgia.

At the CIS summit just held in Moscow, however, Putin backed up his military. He emphatically adopted Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s story that the explosions had been caused by “Chechen and Arab terrorists” fighting among themselves in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. Putin did not even credit that story to Ivanov, but offered it as his own, at risk to his credibility. The Russian president did not totally rule out the possibility of a Russian bombardment, by “one plane” perhaps. But “what kind of bombardment is that, if it did not hit residential areas?”

Putin went on to charge in successive public statements that Georgia condones “international terrorists” maintaining training camps and arms stockpiles, building radio relay stations, mass-producing drugs in a whole network of laboratories that “poison our peoples,” and kidnapping people for ransom to finance terrorism.

In Putin’s and the Russian military’s vision, all this occurs in the tiny Pankisi Gorge, an area of ten small villages, easy to reconnoiter from the air by Russia or for that matter by international organizations. Putin, moreover, asserted that the proceeds from drugs and kidnapping are being sent from Pankisi to Afghanistan in order to help the Taliban fight their war. This may well be a rehearsal of Putin’s response to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has announced his intention to raise in Moscow this week the issue of Russian pressures on Georgia. Britain, too, has in the meantime announced that it “deplores the violation of Georgia’s airspace” and is “deeply concerned about every attempt to violate Georgia’s territorial integrity,” according to a statement made public by ambassador Deborah Barnes-Jones in Tbilisi. Putin’s and Sergei Ivanov’s assertions are snubbing these expressions of concern.

In Moscow during the CIS summit, Putin vaguely agreed with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to set up a joint commission for investigating the bombing incidents. There is no word, however, on the proposed commission’s level or even a starting date. The one existing precedent is not encouraging. A joint Russian-Azerbaijani-Armenian commission was created in 1997, at then Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s suggestion, to investigate the 1994-97 arms transfers, worth more than one billion dollars, from Russia to Armenia and Karabakh. That commission convened periodically at the first deputy prime ministers’ level, while revelations continued leaking out in Moscow with regard to those arms transfers. Yet the joint commission achieved no results whatsoever and faded out gradually, although it has never been officially dissolved. That matter was–and still is–of concern not only to Azerbaijan, but to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, because those arms transfers breached the ceilings of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe and also were calculated to elude the OSCE’s verification procedures, obligatory under CFE. Yet in spite of such an international stake, that joint commission was allowed to fulfill its Kremlin-designated role of imitating an investigation.

The Russian military appears reassured both by the Kremlin’s political cover and by Georgia’s helplessness. From Tbilisi, the correspondent of the Defense Ministry’s newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda pointed out: “Georgia’s air defense equipment is not capable of determining the type of aircraft that cross the border. Georgia has no definitive proof that Russia carried out bomb attacks, and cannot possibly have such proof.”

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze’s response reflects the growing pressure. His latest statements on Russian military bases in Georgia and Russian “peacekeeping” in Abkhazia sound a notch less purposeful than they have long been. Shevardnadze now suggests that it is perhaps not a matter of urgency to set a time frame for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases. Moscow currently demands fourteen years, meaning in practical terms forever, while Georgia offers a three year period, and insists on setting a date from which the period would begin to flow. Postponing that decision would freeze the process. The president, moreover, has bent over backwards in his latest statements to sound conciliatory about the Gudauta base. There, Russia is in prima facie violation of its own binding obligation and the OSCE’s decision that the base be closed as of July 1 of this year.

Moscow openly acknowledges that its actions are meant in part to retaliate against Georgia’s Western orientation. That orientation requires undiminished support if it is to be consistently maintained (NTV, ORT Television, Interfax, Krasnaya Zvezda, Georgian Television, Tbilisi Radio, Prime-News, November 30, December 1-5; see the Monitor, October 3, 12, 23-25, 30-31, November 29, December 3; Fortnight in Review, October 26, November 9).