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As U.S. President George W. Bush made his case for action against Iraq, Russian President Vladimir Putin provided ample proof of the danger of acting unilaterally. Last week, Mr. Putin laid out Russia’s complaints about Georgia’s failure to take action against militants fighting Moscow and asserted Russia’s right to attack them as consistent with the right of self-defense enshrined in the United Nations charter. Mr. Putin’s letter underscores the importance of obtaining U.N. authorization for any attack on hostile forces. The failure to do so would endorse virtual anarchy throughout the world.

Russia has accused Chechen rebels fighting for independence with a series of attacks against Russian targets. The most heinous act was the bombing of apartment buildings in Moscow that claimed over 300 victims. (There are doubts about who was responsible for those blasts; Moscow has been accused of complicity to provide a pretext for going to war against the militants.) The Russian government has fought the rebels in the Chechen Republic for over four years. The offensive has had mixed success, but the human rights violations committed during the war have indelibly stained Russia’s reputation and left a lasting scar on the Chechen psyche.

In a letter to world leaders last week, Mr. Putin argued that Russia’s “successful antiterrorist operation” in Chechnya had driven the “remaining fighters” onto Georgian territory, where they operate freely and receive military and financial assistance. Those forces are said to be headquartered in the Pankisi Gorge. Even the U.S. is worried that elements of al-Qaeda are among the militants regrouping in the Gorge. Mr. Putin said that the Georgian government had failed to eliminate the rebels on its own and had failed to take up Russian offers to help. In those circumstances, charged Mr. Putin, unilateral action by Russia was fully within its rights. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has said that his military is ready to begin attacks in Georgia.

Georgia does operate under severe restraints. Its military has only 17,000 poorly equipped men. It has launched only one operation, which reportedly captured 13 men, one of whom is an Arab. The Georgian government has turned to the U.S. for help training its forces.

Georgia’s president, Mr. Eduard Shevardnadze, called Mr. Putin’s speech “hasty and groundless.” He countered that the Russian offensive in Chechnya drove the rebels into the Pankisi Gorge. Resentment of Russia is already high in Georgia. Moscow is charged with flying over Georgian territory during its offensives. Anger is also created by the presence of two Russian bases on Georgia’s soil — a remnant of the Soviet era — and the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions bordering Russia that have been virtually independent since separatists fought Georgian troops in the 1990s. Moscow is accused of encouraging those separatist ambitions.

Georgia fears that Moscow’s resort to unilateral action would destabilize the entire region. A Russian offensive would scatter the militants, and other governments have said they would ask for Russian help to combat the threat they would pose. In other words, the offensive would be the first step toward the reassertion of a Russian presence throughout the troubled Caucasus region. Since there is little indication that the Russian military could defeat the threat, the possibility of a wider conflagration is possible, if not likely.

The ultimatum to Georgia could not be worse-timed. Russia has staunchly opposed unilateral action by the U.S. against Iraq. Washington has said that it strongly supports Georgia’s territorial integrity and would oppose “any unilateral military action by Russia inside Georgia.” The inconsistency in the U.S. position is hard to miss. Mr. Bush’s demand that the U.N. take action to head off a U.S. offensive sounds a lot like Mr. Putin’s letter. In both cases, the world body has been put on notice that a failure to act would have serious consequences. Cynics argue that Moscow is laying the groundwork for a deal: Its acquiescence to an attack on Iraq for a similar go-ahead in Georgia.

India’s leaders are watching both situations closely as that country tries to deal with intensifying violence in the Kashmir region. Indeed, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has warned that the chief danger of a unilateral U.S. attack against Iraq is that it would send the wrong signal to New Delhi. The possibilities are endless — and profoundly disturbing.

The failure to obtain U.N. authorization for any military action against Iraq would propel the world down a slippery slope toward anarchy. The world body and its members must acknowledge that danger and face it squarely.

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