Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is upping the stakes for George W. Bush just as the White House wants Russia's support in the U.N. Security Council for a showdown with Saddam Hussein's Iraq--a showdown Washington sees as inevitable even after Baghdad's Sept. 16 agreement to let in inspectors. The issue concerns a matter of top priority to Putin: Chechnya. In a war both sides have fought in brutal fashion, Russian troops have been battling rebels for three years in the nation's breakaway Chechen republic. The Chechen forces, with help from al Qaeda-linked Arab fighters, have used the Pankisi Gorge in neighboring Georgia as a launching pad for deadly strikes against Russian units in Chechnya.
But in a cleverly timed speech on September 11, the first anniversary of the terror attacks on America, Putin sternly warned the Georgians that Russia would take unilateral military action in the gorge unless the Georgians got tough themselves. Putin declared Russia had the same rights under international law to root out terrorist nests in the Pankisi Gorge that the U.S. invoked in its strike against Afghanistan. The speech put Washington on notice. Since May, Green Berets have been training a plainly unenthusiastic Georgian army for anti-terrorist operations, with little apparent success.
Putin's gambit appears to be working. On Sept. 16, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said he had ordered "active operations" to capture terrorists in the gorge. Shevardnadze also said that U.S. and Russian intelligence operatives were working in the gorge. Neither the Russian nor U.S. governments would confirm their personnel were helping, but a Western diplomat in Moscow says U.S., Russian, and Georgian officials have discussed the idea of a joint project. U.S. officials say Washington has hardened its attitude towards the rebels after efforts to bring moderate Chechens to the negotiating table failed. The U.S. is also open to the possibility of a Russian-Georgian military operation in the gorge--an option the Georgians have been resisting.
For the U.S., there would be dividends in backing Putin's get-tough policy. Despite efforts to train the Georgians, Washington does not believe they are capable on their own of eliminating battle-hardened Islamic militants from the gorge. What's more, U.S. pressure on the Georgians to root out terrorists ought to make Moscow listen more sympathetically to Washington's case on Iraq. "Everything is interconnected in this world," says a Putin confidante, Mikhail V. Margelov, who heads the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Parliament's upper chamber. Georgia and Iraq are expected to be on the agenda when the Foreign and Defense Ministers of the U.S. and Russia meet in Washington on Sept. 20.
But heightened activity in the Caucasus presents risks for the U.S., too. One is the danger that U.S. advisers in Georgia get targeted in a new flare-up of violence. America's global image could also suffer through a closer identification with aggressive Russian war methods. And a dangerous precedent could be set. If Putin mounts a larger military effort with the tacit approval of Washington, countries in other hot spots could follow his example. Analysts fear India, for example, could invoke the same argument Putin is using to launch a major strike against the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan. "This has got to be very carefully controlled" by U.S. policymakers, says Fiona Hill, an expert on the Caucasus region at the Brookings Institution. Even as Putin cooperates with the war on terror, he's posing yet another dilemma for Bush's hard-pressed anti-terrorism team.
By Paul Starobin in Moscow, with Stan Crock in Washington
Edited by Rose Brady