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Putin Has His Own Candidate for Pre-emption

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
October 6, 2002
The New York Times


While working to slow down the Bush administration's campaign against Saddam

Hussein, Russia has for weeks waged a campaign of accusation and intimidation

against neighboring Georgia, where some Chechen fighters have taken refuge. It's

not the first such outburst by Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin, against

his Georgian counterpart, Eduard A. Shevardnadze. But Russia's pitch-perfect

parody of American antiterrorism policy has commanded Washington's attention and

could even derail Russian-American cooperation.

On the eve of President Bush's Sept. 12 speech to the United Nations on Iraq,

Mr. Putin wrote Secretary General Kofi Annan charging that Georgia's passivity

toward Chechen fighters on its territory violated Security Council resolutions.

Russia might therefore have to act unilaterally. The chief of Russia's general

staff insisted that Mr. Shevardnadze was "in no way" different from Mullah Omar

of the Taliban.

The Russian defense minister announced that no United Nations vote was

needed to attack Georgia. One Russian newspaper published military plans to

occupy all of Georgia -- and thereby "dictate the terms" of its future existence

as a state. The headline: "Pre-emption Moscow-Style."

Mr. Shevardnadze has shown he can use Moscow's words against it. Echoing the

United Nations debate on Iraq, he has invited Mr. Putin to send unarmed

inspectors to see for themselves that Georgian forces have cleared the area

where Russians say Chechen fighters roam at will.

When the current anti-Georgian frenzy began, many in both Moscow and

Washington saw it as a Russian military attempt to deflect attention from the

war in Chechnya. Russian polls show popular confidence in the management of the

war has dropped to about 30 percent. Yet even the most transparent scapegoating

of Georgia seems to sell. No surprise, then, that one of the generals

reprimanded when Chechen rebels shot down a military helicopter in August told

reporters last week that the Chechens got the missile they had used from -- yes

-- the Georgians.

If one believes Moscow journalists and politicians, Russian generals fear

more than professional disgrace in Chechnya. By perpetuating the war, they also

protect the black-market livelihood they have there, selling oil, drugs, even

weapons. Yet blame-shifting is only one Russian aim in this affair. Moscow's

nationalistic agitation has brought other motives to the surface, particularly

the desire to take Georgia down a peg.

For years Mr. Shevardnadze has said that letting Russian combat forces into

Georgia would engulf his country in the same violence that Chechnya has

experienced. To which some Russians answer, "So what?" For them, if chaos could

topple Mr. Shevardnadze or break Georgia's budding relationship with NATO, or

wreck plans for pipelines that circumvent Russia -- well, what's wrong with a

little chaos?

Russian officials disavow such ideas, but Moscow's threats have guaranteed a

strong show of American support for Georgian independence. President Bush fired

off a letter to Mr. Shevardnadze, praising his "invaluable contribution" to the

war on terrorism. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, while saying he wouldn't

lecture the Russians, has publicly warned them off any thought of using "brute

force" against Georgia.

Administration officials acknowledge that a Russian attack on Georgia would

be a fiasco for their friendly relations with Mr. Putin. "Regime change" in

Georgia would reverberate across the entire former Soviet Union. In Russia, it

would make the idea of restoring some sort of post-Soviet realm not just a

nostalgic Communist obsession but a respectable strategic alternative to joining

the West. Elsewhere, governments that the United States has tried to help -- or,

as in central Asia, whose help it has sought -- would be on notice that America

cannot, or will not, help them stand up to Russia.

Despite its emotional heat and dangerous implications, Mr. Putin's indictment

of Georgia has already had its effect. These days in Washington it's not good

enough for any state to say that it tolerates only a few terrorists and only

some of the time. Or that there aren't enough of them to affect the outcome of

the war next door. Or that the terrorists wouldn't be a problem at all if the

neighboring state hadn't mismanaged the war in the first place.

Georgia can and does make these arguments, with real persuasiveness. Yet,

while holding the Russian at bay, the Bush administration has apparently

concluded that the only way to avert disaster is to get the Georgians to address

the underlying problem rather than to win the debate.

Last spring, during an earlier round of Russian accusations, the United

States responded by announcing a major military training program for Georgia.

This time the response has been: Get your act together -- a serious state

doesn't make itself vulnerable by letting armed fighters use its territory. Mr.

Shevardnadze's sweep against the fighters is one result. The fact that fighting

has now escalated in Chechnya itself, involving Chechen units with nowhere else

to go, may be another.

Russians often accuse the United States of blindness to Mr. Shevardnadze's

failings, but they're wrong. The afterglow of admiration for his achievements as

Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev doesn't drive American policy

anymore. In fact, most American diplomats regard his regime in Georgia as

corrupt and ineffective and have given up hope that any of Georgia's problems

will be dealt with seriously under his leadership. They know Mr. Shevardnadze is

a survivor. They just want to see him do enough to survive.

If this confrontation ends more or less peacefully -- a big if -- it may be

because all the parties accept what they least like in each other's policies.

The United States may not mind Russian pressure if it focuses Mr. Shevardnadze

on what he has to do. The Russians may not mind American influence if it yields

a change in Georgian policy. And the Georgians may not mind being told they have

to make decisions they find it hard to make themselves.

In such an outcome, Russians who saw an opportunity to turn back the growth

of American influence will be disappointed. But some of them may have known this

was where they would end up. Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, was asked

three weeks ago whether Russia didn't in fact need a larger American presence in

Georgia. "Maybe," he shrugged.

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