BACKGROUND: Since February 27, the Russian media and parts of its political elite have been boiling hysterically, culminating with Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s explicit, if agonizing headline “Georgia, that we lost.” Prior to the news of the U.S. decision to send 200 special forces to Georgia, Moscow has sought to intervene in the Pankisi gorge on its border with Chechnya, from where about 8,000 refugees fled Russia’s military campaign. The international anti-terrorist campaign has provided Russian an additional pretext to mount pressure on Georgia, requesting the permission to bomb Pankisi Gorge. While Tbilisi did not dispute the reports of armed militants among the refugees, it considered it unacceptable to allow Russian military intervention, in no little measure because Russia has a history of fueling conflicts in the separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia among other destabilizing acts. Nevertheless, since October 2001, Russian military jets have violated Georgian airspace on several occasions, by bombing Pankisi as well as Georgian villages in Abkhazia, as documented by OSCE observers. The turn of events culminated with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s scandalous statement in January that Osama bin Laden himself has found a shelter in the Pankisi gorge. Hitherto scattered U.S. attention to the Pankisi situation grew when a high-ranking U.S. diplomat reported that Islamic radicals with links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban were operating there. On February 27, the Pentagon officially confirmed dispatching a group of military advisors to train Georgian anti-terrorist forces to prepare for operations in the Pankisi Gorge. Top-level Russian authorities reacted with outrage, and openly unleashed aggressive schemes of action towards Georgia. Dmitry Ragozin, Chairman of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, called for Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence. Russian state-owned gas company Itera again cut gas supplies to Georgia, and Foreign Minister Ivanov stated that “U.S. deployment in Georgia will further exacerbate the already complex situation in the region.” After consultations between U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his Russian counterpart Sergei Ivanov, Russia has been somewhat mollified by assurances that this is part of a development program designed to provide training and logistics assistance that will assist Georgia in developing the capability to control its own borders, and to conduct limited counterinsurgency operations against terrorist elements. Georgian authorities cast this development as long-term security cooperation, which began with the supply of ten military helicopters last October, and subsequent training for Georgian pilots and ground support personnel. Georgian State Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania is currently on official visit to the United States and the U.K., while a delegation from the General Staff of the Turkish armed forces arrives to discuss joint military exercises to be held at the Turkish-Georgian state border in late March.
IMPLICATIONS: At this stage, the American deployment is important not by its size, nor for its function, but rather as a symbol of the expansion of U.S. military ties with the South Caucasus. U.S. interest in Georgia has outgrown the initial framework of security and defense assistance mainly intended to provide security for the Eurasian energy and transport corridor. The aftermath of September 11 has not only significantly modified the details of this cooperation, but also provided the right momentum for the ending of a steadily fading Russian hegemony over the Caucasus. After concluding agreements with Bishkek, Tashkent and Dushanbe, Washington needs to evaluate other possibilities for military expansion in the region. The U.S. obviously has a range of interests, from gaining overflight rights over the South Caucasus states’ airspace to exploring prospects of joint operation on now vacant former Soviet military bases. With regard to Russia, the looming American project of deploying troops in Georgia does not serve the strategic interests of a power taken hostage of its own colonialist history. For neo-colonial forces in Russia, the presence of U.S. troops in Georgia heralds Russia’s withdrawal from the South Caucasus, amounting to irrevocable geopolitical decay. Nor does it hold advantageous implications for sustaining the Russian goal of securing Caspian oil and gas pipeline routes. The Russian political and military classes now state publicly that they view U.S. presence as a hindrance to Russian strategic objectives of dominating the region. At the CIS summit in Almaty, however, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin once again reiterated his pro-Western stance, adopted in the aftermath of the September 11 events, that it is a national prerogative of Georgia to protect its security, and it has the same right to cooperate with the U.S. as do Central Asian states. The frustration of Putin’s subordinates seems to increase dramatically as they append American expansion to the Caucasus to their president’s failures. The appointment of Tedo Japaridze, currently Georgia’s ambassador to the U.S. and closely involved in U.S.-Georgian military cooperation, to the post of National Security Council Secretary, is indicative. The post was vacant since February 25, when Nugzar Sajaia, Shevrdnadze’s aide for 30 years, committed suicide in precarious circumstances.
CONCLUSIONS: The U.S. insists that it does not seek to achieve a military presence in the Caucasus. Yet in geopolitical terms, Georgia and the South Caucasus remain the gateway to the Central Asia. Clearly, in view of U.S. bases there, American national interests are served by anchoring Georgia to a pro-U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. has allocated large amounts of aid to Georgia, which on a per capita basis is the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the former Soviet Union. For Georgia, the effect on the ground will depend on the internal problems of the Georgian state and its current leadership. It is essential to fight corruption and carry out reforms, however that realistically clearly seems to be left for post-Shevardnadze Georgia. As for Russia’s new cordial relationship with the U.S. and NATO, if hopes for Russia’s integration with the European powers are to come true, U.S.-Georgian military cooperation, preventing Islamic radicals from taking root in the Caucasus, should be in Russia’s objective interests. Whether Putin’s pragmatic realpolitik is to prevail over the radical chauvinist forces in Russia remains to be seen.AUTHOR BIO: Khatuna Salukvadze is a Senior Consultant to the Georgian Parliament’s Committee on Defense and Security. The views expressed here belong to the author and do not in any way represent those of the Government of Georgia.
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