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Marching Into Georgia

By Nat Parry
March 13, 2002

George W. Bush’s 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.

The Bush administration justifies the intervention as a strike against alleged al-Qaeda fighters who supposedly have blended among Chechen rebels hiding out in Georgia’s remote Pankisi Gorge in the Caucasus Mountains. Thousands of Chechens are holed up in the rugged terrain after fleeing Russia’s brutal counterinsurgency war in the neighboring Russian province of Chechnya. Most likely, among the refugees, are fighters who launch attacks into Russia.

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, Schevardnadze’s Georgian government has blamed Putin’s 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.

A 'Crusade'

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 Georgia’s lawless Pankisi Gorge.

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 Georgia’s 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 Russia’s 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 Russia’s 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 Georgia’s northwest corner.

Oil Motive

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 territory.

Beyond the long-term risk of antagonizing and destabilizing nuclear-armed Russia, Bush’s 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 Bush’s unilateralism. To effectively combat terrorism, they argue, multinational cooperation is needed.

"You can’t 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."

Historical Tensions

Yet, the risks of U.S. unilateralism are especially striking in Georgia because of its complex history of regional tensions dating back centuries.

Georgia has 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 insurgents.

Russian Bias

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 Georgia’s 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 Georgia’s 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 Georgia’s 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 [Russia’s] stated policy of support for Georgia’s 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.

Chechen 'Terrorists'

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 Russia's pressure.

More Resources

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 international support.”

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 peacekeepers … 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.

Changed Attitudes

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 Abkhazia’s 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 Georgia’s 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 Russia’s greatest concern is eliminating the Chechen terrorist threat.

Hidden Objectives?

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 Hussein.

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 region.

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 Laden."

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 dangers.

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