BACKGROUND: The Russian campaign of intimidation against Georgia has stepped up in recent months and included more than five cases of airspace violation, unauthorized troop movements in Georgia's hotspots of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the habitual threats of cutting off energy supplies. Importantly, top Russian politicians, and executive and military officials were involved in continuous media propaganda, arguing for urgent, possibly military, action against Georgia. Since the Clinton administration, the U.S. has rejected Russian attempts to intervene unilaterally to the South of the Caucasus range. And although the aftermath of 9/11 led to a strategic partnership between Russia and the U.S. as Washington sought allies in its fight against international terrorism, the reaction of the Bush administration to Putin's threats against Georgia shows that the redline policies not only continues to hold but may develop under the post-September 11 situation into a novel security arrangement. As reflected in the new security doctrine, the U.S. has changed its security priorities. Nowadays, it can no longer afford to tolerate dormant conflicts and weak statesthat may serve as havens for terrorism. That implies that it cannot afford any Russian involvement that may destabilize the fragile balance in the South Caucasus. The United States has asserted an unprecedented presence in the former backwater of Russian politics. It has stakes in the $3 billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, implements a $64 million Train-and-Equip (GTEP) program in Georgia aiming to upgrade Georgia's anti-terrorist and military capabilities, and there is a significant U.S. military presence in Central Asia to back up the Afghanistan operation. In specific response to the Putin ultimatum, President George W. Bush in a September 20 letter to Shevardnadze stressed that "the United States continues to be loyal to its commitments to help Georgia." Defying Putin's accusations that Georgia sponsors terrorism, Bush thanked Georgia for its "invaluable contribution to the campaign to free the world of terrorism." Top U.S. defense and foreign policy officials consistently underlined that the U.S. assists Georgia to handle the issue and would not approve of any unilateral Russian action. Information suggests that the U.S. is now willing to pursue a larger role in shaping the security arrangements in the Caucasus. According to Tedo Japaridze, Secretary of the Georgian National Security Council, his American counterpart Condoleezza Rice at a September 20 meeting in Washington unveiled a plan to launch continuous U.S.-Georgian-Russian consultations on regional security issues. U.S. State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher partially confirmed these reports on September 27, stating that the U.S. offered cooperation "on a bilateral as well as trilateral basis." The U.S. interest in addressing Georgia's other security concerns has also been evident recently as Douglas Davidson, the deputy chief of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE reiterated on October 1 the "profound disappointment" of the United States "with the lack of progress on the remaining Istanbul issues", referring to the withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia. The U.S. has also contributed financially to the OSCE Voluntary Fund for Georgia to hasten the withdrawal. On October 1, the United States also dispatched representative for Eurasian conflicts Rudolf Perina to meet president Shevardnadze and pledge a more active U.S. involvement in finding solution to the dormant conflicts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Finally, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Eurasian International Security Policy, Mira Ricardel, and Commander in Chief of the US European Command Gen. Joseph Ralston recently visited Georgia to pledge increased assistance to the Georgian defense system.
IMPLICATIONS: The consistent attention of top U.S. officials, including President Bush, to Russo-Georgian relations shows that the U.S. initiative to mitigate possible Russian military involvement in Georgia is not merely an ad hoc measure, but part of a larger, concerted effort to define a more active role for the U.S. in the South Caucasus regional security infrastructure, after securing a significant military presence in Central Asia. With reference to Georgia, crucial emphasis is placed on Georgia's internal ability to quell tensions in Pankisi, but also to show progress in economic stability and democratic reform, that remained largely stagnant over the last couple years. Well-placed scholars have quoted "a general consensus" between the State Department and the National Security Council on the need to solidify American security presence and involvement in Georgia. Apparently, no consensus on the specific details of such involvement have been elaborated, but the trilateral consultations scenario could be one of the potential arrangements. If this becomes the reality, it would put a clear end to Russian aspirations of explicit security influence over Georgia and in its Southern tier. U.S. security involvement is likely to extend not only to the military sphere, but also to energy security, especially painful for Georgia, which is largely dependent on Russian energy supplies. Initial Russian response to the trilateral consultations has not surprisingly been rather cold. The consultations with the U.S. are likely to be long and painful.
CONCLUSION: The recent U.S. reactions imply that Russia's heavy-handed tactics, mimicking the U.S. rhetoric against Iraq, has backfired. Russia was deterred by the sharp international, primarily American, rejection of the possible use of force. In addition, the Georgian government has rejected Russia's project of acquiring control over the Tbilisi gas distribution network through ITERA. Another ITERA deal on controlling shares of the "Azot" chemical factory has also come under close scrutiny. In addition, not only did the U.S. not tolerate Russian unilateral intervention in Georgia, but also re-confirmed its support for Georgia in an unprecedented manner. Lessened ambiguity in the U.S. administration's approach towards Georgia nourishes hopes for a new security arrangement in the region. However, the prospects of Russian participation in this arrangement remain unclear, contributing to uncertainty in the region. Chances of fending off Russian pressure will have implications for internal Georgian politics as well, as they will strengthen the pro-Western wing of Georgian politics, increasing the likelihood of success of these factions in the 2003 election. Russia maintains significant levers of pressure on Georgia, including economic ones, but the Putin administration may need to go back to their drawing tables to sketch the contours of a new policy towards Georgia, before its strategic initiative is irreversibly lost.
AUTHOR BIO: Dr Blanka Hancilova works for the Institute of International Relations in Prague, Czech Republic. Jaba Devdariani is the Founding Director for the UN Association of Georgia (www.una.org.ge) and an Editor-in-Chief of Civil Georgia (www.civil.ge).
Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved.