W. Bushs decision to dispatch about 150 U.S. troops to the former
Soviet republic of Georgia highlights the complexities and dangers that
his global war on terrorism will confront -- and possibly cause.
administration justifies the intervention as a strike against alleged al-Qaeda
fighters who supposedly have blended among Chechen rebels hiding out in
Georgias remote Pankisi Gorge in the Caucasus Mountains. Thousands of
Chechens are holed up in the rugged terrain after fleeing Russias
brutal counterinsurgency war in the neighboring Russian province of
Chechnya. Most likely, among the refugees, are fighters who launch attacks
As militarily daunting as it will be for the U.S. troops and their
Georgian allies to locate, separate out and eliminate the alleged al-Qaeda
terrorists, the geopolitical challenge might be even trickier. Two
governments Georgia and Russia are facing off against each other
over the region's nationalist claims and counterclaims dating back
centuries. Both simultaneously are confronting restive ethnic groups
operating inside their own countries.
Follow this scenario for a moment: the Russian government of Vladimir
Putin has criticized the Georgian government of Eduard Schevardnadze for
giving safe haven to the Chechen rebels. Meanwhile, Schevardnadzes
Georgian government has blamed Putins Russia for aiding and abetting
separatists from the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia.
While rebels in Chechnya want to break away from Russia, rebels in
Abkhazia and South Ossetia want to break away from Georgia. Complicating
matters further, the Chechen civil war has been the scene of widespread
human rights abuses on both sides, while the Georgian region of Abkhazia
has had its own ugly scenes of ethnic cleansing.
Into this maelstrom of regional and ethnic warfare now steps George W.
Bush and his crusade to rid the world of evil. The Bush
administration wants U.S. troops to assist Georgian soldiers in hunting
down and killing al-Qaeda fighters holed up in Georgias lawless Pankisi
This operation was initiated with almost no consultation with leaders of
the U.S. Congress or with key international players who have been working
to resolve the chronic civil wars in the Caucasus territory.
The Bush administration also has offered little detail about the hazy
accusations that the al-Qaeda operatives, who are allegedly among the
Chechen fighters, have links to the Sept. 11 attacks or represent a
terrorist movement with global reach the new catch-all
justification for U.S. military interventions anywhere in the world, from
Yemen to the Philippines to Colombia.
Bush committed the troops to Georgia with little or no explanation to the
Russian Federation, the United Nations and the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe. All three have been active for years addressing
Georgias separatist struggles.
Though Putin announced belatedly that he did not object to the U.S.
intervention, Russian military officials have warned that the presence of
U.S. troops so close to Russias southern border is a provocation. Many
in Russia see the U.S. intervention in Georgia and the placement of four
permanent military bases in former Soviet Central Asian states as
encroachments on Russias traditional sphere of influence, comparable to
Russia sending troops to intervene in a civil war in Mexico.
The lack of consultation was particularly galling for Moscow because
Russia has long suspected that Georgia was collaborating with the
Chechens, letting them use the Pankisi Gorge to mount assaults on Russian
forces in Chechnya in exchange for the Chechens helping the Georgians
battle pro-Russian separatists in Abkhazia, in Georgias northwest
Some observers also see U.S. motives that go beyond exacting retribution
for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon. Bush is seen as wanting to pacify the territory around the
oil-rich Caspian Sea basin so pipelines can be laid to extract an
estimated $5 trillion in oil and natural gas to the West. One possible
route for a pipeline would be through Georgia, bypassing Russian
Beyond the long-term risk of antagonizing and destabilizing nuclear-armed
Russia, Bushs move places American troops in the morally ambiguous spot
of picking out evil-doers in the midst of a murky civil war where
there is plenty of guilt to go around.
European leaders, in particular, have questioned the wisdom of Bushs
unilateralism. To effectively combat terrorism, they argue, multinational
cooperation is needed.
"You cant deal with the dark side of globalization the
terrorism, the financing of terrorism, the crime, the drugs, the
trafficking of human beings, the relationship between environmental
degradation and poverty and security," said Chris Patten, the
European Union's external affairs commissioner, "unless you deal with
them as a result of multilateral engagement."
Yet, the risks of U.S. unilateralism are especially striking in Georgia
because of its complex history of regional tensions dating back centuries.
historically been at odds with Russia, which has used its might to
dominate the small republic for centuries. In the early 1800s, the Russian
Empire gradually annexed Georgia's entire territory. Eastern Georgia
became part of the Russian Empire in 1801, and western Georgia was
incorporated in 1804. In the second half of the 19th Century, "Russification"
of Georgia intensified, as did Georgian rebellions.
With the collapse of the Russian Empire in October 1917, Georgia formed a
short-lived government with the neighboring states of Armenia and
Azerbaijan. When that dissolved in May 1918, Georgia declared its
independence. For almost three years, Georgia's moderate social democratic
government survived the revolutionary fervor sweeping the old Russian
Empire. Then, in February 1921, the Red Army invaded, making Georgia part
of the Transcaucasian Federal Soviet Socialist Republic.
Georgia remained part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991, when
Georgia declared its independence and sought closer ties to the West.
Georgian-Russian relations grew tense in fall 1993, when Russia coerced
Georgia into joining the Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent
States in exchange for Russian military help in quashing a comeback by the
ousted Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
Since then, there have been flashes of hostility between Georgia and
Russia, including Russian threats to invade its tiny neighbor to the
south. Despite that history, Georgia has grudgingly accepted Russian
assistance as a political mediator between Georgia and its separatist
Georgia tolerated Russian assistance as a facilitator for negotiations and
its military presence as peacekeepers. But many Georgians feel the
Russians have undercut Georgia and tacitly supported the sovereignty of
Georgias Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, along the Russian border.
These two regions have declared independence and have their own
governments, although they are not recognized by the international
community, which holds that the conflicts must be settled within the
framework of a united Georgia.
There is some evidence behind Georgias suspicions. For instance, Russia
backed away from a commitment by the Commonwealth of Independent States to
allow citizens from member states to travel without visas. Russia imposed
a visa requirement for citizens of Georgia who wished to enter Russia,
while not requiring visas for residents of Georgias two unrecognized
separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The move gave implicit legitimacy to their claims of independence and
prompted a rebuke from the U.S. State Department, which said the Russian
action runs directly counter to [Russias] stated policy of support
for Georgias sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The issue of Russian peacekeepers in Georgia also has been a source of
friction between Moscow and Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.
A Russian force of peacekeepers was dispatched under the authority of the
Commonwealth of Independent States to prevent another outbreak of civil
war in Georgia and to protect the Abkhazian population from Georgian
incursions. But many Georgians feel the peacekeepers have favored the
separatists, while doing little to protect the 300,000 ethnic Georgians
who fled or were expelled from Abkhazia and South Ossetia eight years ago.
The peacekeeping issue between Georgia and Russia has been complicated by
Russia's accusations that Georgia is harboring terrorists from
Chechnya. Russia also alleged that the Chechens fight with Georgian
guerrilla formations against the Abkhaz separatists.
Georgia responded that any Chechens in Georgia were refugees who fled the
Russian military occupation of Chechnya. Georgia invited the Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe in December 1999 to send monitors
to watch the border between Georgia and Chechnya.
Soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Moscow began accusing Tbilisi
of a double standard. While offering Washington assistance in the U.S. war
on terrorism, Georgia refused to cooperate with Moscow over the Chechen
rebels, or even to acknowledge their presence on Georgian territory. Russian
politicians began threatening to send Russian troops into Georgia to
capture or kill Chechen "terrorists."
In late September, some Georgian deputies confirmed that there were
Chechen fighters in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. But Georgia continued to snub
Russian requests to coordinate military efforts to root out the Chechens.
Georgia will not allow any foreign state to use its territory for
military operations, said a Georgian Foreign Ministry official about
Meanwhile, President Shevardnadze began assuring Georgia's displaced
persons that they would be returning to their homes in Abkhazia very
soon because, Shevardnadze said, we have more resources now and more
The resources and support could have been an allusion to the military aid
and training that Georgia was beginning to get from NATO and the United
States, including 10 fighter helicopters in October. It also could have
been a reference to the upcoming deployment of U.S. troops.
The Georgians also took a tougher line on the presence of Russian
peacekeepers, an issue that came to a head in October as new violence
broke out in Georgia. Some Georgians suspected the trouble was partly
instigated by the Russian peacekeepers, whose departure was demanded by
the Georgian parliament and Shevardnadze. The peacekeepers have proved
incapable to fulfill the obligations and keep the peace in the region,
the Georgian president said.
In an Oct. 11 resolution, the parliament said the Russian peacekeepers
"are not the facilitators of the conflict settlement but rather its
instigators. The parliament added that after deployment of Russian
ethnic cleansing of Georgians has not been stopped. It is
confirmed that during this period more than 1,700 persons were killed in
the security zone, [and that the] peacekeeping forces committed numerous
crimes against the peaceful population.
The parliament asked the UN, the OSCE and "friendly countries [to]
deploy international peacekeeping forces in [the] conflict zone in order
to substitute [for the] peacekeeping forces of the Russian Federation.
But "friendly countries" showed no eagerness to assume the
burden of peacekeeping in Georgia. Eventually, Tbilisi rethought its
stance, and decided to let the Russians stay, with a more limited mandate.
Also in October came reports that Russia was bombing the Pankisi Gorge in
apparent attempts to kill Chechen fighters hiding out there. Russia denied
that they were bombing Georgia, but eyewitnesses said the planes came from
Russian territory. The OSCE, which monitors the border, confirmed that
there were unidentified jets coming from Russia.
These incidents made Georgian-Russian relations even worse. The Georgian
government vowed to shoot down any unidentified planes over its territory.
Considering that Georgia had long denied the presence of Chechen rebels on
its territory, it seems possible that Georgia made the admission to avert
a Russian invasion. Georgia also might have seen an opportunity to gain
the support of the United States, which was looking for allies in its
global war on terrorism.
It's possible, too, that Georgia hopes to use the U.S. military assistance
to subdue Abkhazia, expel the de facto government in Abkhazias capital,
and return the 300,000 Georgian displaced persons to the area.
Some international observers fear the Bush administration is being lured
into a regional conflict under the guise of chasing al-Qaeda operatives, a
pursuit that could complicate multilateral efforts for a political
settlement to Georgias separatist disputes.
These negotiations have been stalemated for a long time, but there have
been renewed efforts by the international community in recent months to
get the opposing sides back to the bargaining table. U.S. intervention now
may fuel Russian fears of a Georgian invasion of Abkhazia.
We think it could further aggravate the situation in the region, which
is difficult as it is, said Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on
Feb. 27. Abkhazian separatist leaders already are signaling that they may
seek closer relations with Russia, while Russian officials have indicated
they might be forced to recognize the independence of Abkhazia.
The new developments seem certain to alter the balance of power in the
Caucasus region. Only a year ago, Georgian officials were assuring Moscow
that they were not seeking membership in NATO, but now they want to join
the U.S.-dominated military alliance as early as 2005 and are hosting
American troops close to Russia's border.
Despite widespread concerns in Moscow, Putin said he supports the American
intervention because Russias greatest concern is eliminating the
Chechen terrorist threat.
But if the real U.S. aim is to combat the al-Qaeda terrorists allegedly
hiding among the Chechens in Pankisi Gorge, it is puzzling why the Bush
administration left Moscow so much in the dark.
While some observers speculate that there may have been very high-level
consultations, official Moscow clearly was caught off-guard by the U.S.
announcement. "There have been no preliminary consultations with
Moscow," said the mass-circulation Komsomolskaya Pravda.
The reason for the secrecy may have more to do with ulterior American
motives. One of these hidden motives may be to establish a base for
launching attacks on Iraq, if Bush acts on his warning to oust Saddam
Bush also has demonstrated a deep interest in the oil and natural gas of
the Caspian basin, the world's largest known deposits of fossil fuels.
Komsomolskaya Pravda argues that the U.S. actions are episodes in a
giant battle for controlling the major deposits of Caspian oil and gas,
primarily, for routes to transport the Caspian oil."
Without doubt, Bush and his inner circle have long had their eyes on the
Caspian oil riches.
Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was Bush's point man for
stopping the Florida recount, represents a consortium of major oil
companies based in Azerbaijan. After taking office in January 2001, Bush
brushed aside calls for U.S. diplomatic initiatives in Israel and other
hot spots. But he personally became engaged in negotiations to settle a
border dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh
These diplomatic initiatives were widely interpreted as part of Bush's
strategy to arrange new pipeline routes out of the Caspian basin.
Currently, Russian companies control all the routes for Caspian oil.
Those early diplomatic initiatives predated the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks. Since those attacks, however, the Bush administration has enjoyed
broad public support to take a variety of actions that it deems justified
in bringing those behind the mass murders to justice. A byproduct of some
military actions may be to position U.S. forces to allow pipeline
construction to proceed.
The U.S. military presence will help ensure that a majority of oil and
gas from the Caspian basin will go westward, observed the intelligence
analysis service STRATFOR.
Russian fears about Bush's underlying strategy prompted a group of retired
Russian generals to brand Putin a western lackey and a traitor to Russian
interests. "With your [Putin's] blessing, the United States has
received military bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and, maybe,
Kazakhstan," the generals declared in a published broadside. "In
the long run, these bases are for dealing a strike on Russia, not bin
So far, Putin seems to have kept his active-duty generals in line. Col.
Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, first deputy chief of the general staff, told a news
conference that he did not consider U.S. military trainers in Georgia to
be "American troops." [NYT, March 1, 2002]
But Bush's leap into the turbulence of Central Asia may bring a host of
unintended consequences. The wild terrain of the Pankisi Gorge and the
hunt for elusive al-Qaeda fighters may be just the first of many