The situation surrounding the Caucasus, a region rife with Islamic militancy, is becoming tense. As the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush prepares for a war with Iraq, cracks are developing in the U.S.-Russia coalition against terrorism. The fighting between Russian troops and Islamic rebels in Chechnya has intensified again, spilling over into neighboring Georgia, a pro-Western state with U.S. backing.
After the 9/11 attacks, the United States and Russia joined hands to remove the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan. Chechnya is a different story. The breakaway republic is a part of the Caucasus, where the former Cold War archrivals have been vying with each other for influence since the collapse of the Soviet Union. How the Chechen conflict will affect other parts of the region is, therefore, a serious concern.
Tensions mounted in this strategic region in late August when Russian military aircraft bombed border areas in Georgia, causing civilian casualties. Moscow all but ignored a protest issued by the Georgian government. The U.S., which has spy satellites tracking military movements around the globe, criticized the bombing as a violation of Georgian sovereignty.
Georgia is pursuing an independent foreign policy with the focus on promoting ties with the West. The Russian incursion into Georgian territory and the subsequent U.S. warning illustrate that post-9/11 Russo-American cooperation in the antiterror war is not as monolithic as it appears.
Russia has expressed dissatisfaction that Georgian authorities have not taken effective action against Chechen rebels, which it claims are hiding in Georgia’s eastern gorges. Last month, Moscow laid out a hardline position against Tbilisi, saying it will exercise the “right of self-defense” to eliminate the militants if Georgia does not cooperate.
Russia’s running military campaign in Chechnya, which began three years ago, has come under fire from the United States and Europe for its violation of human rights. The Chechen issue was probably uppermost in the mind of Russian President Vladmir Putin when he threw his weight behind U.S. President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism. It appears that Mr. Putin’s aim was to give legitimacy to his own crackdowns on Islamic radicals.
Moscow’s reference to “the right of self-defense,” just a year after 9/11, seems designed to remind Western countries that Russia is fighting terrorism in Chechnya, and that cross-border attacks in Georgia are therefore justified. Moscow also seems to be sending another message: Its cooperation with the U.S. in the antiterror campaign does not mean it fully supports Washington’s strategy.
In fact, its hardline posture toward Georgia suggests that Russia considers that former Soviet republic a part of its historic sphere of influence. Tbilisi reportedly believes Russian claims that Chechen rebels are hiding in Georgian territory to be merely an excuse for incursions, and that Russia’s real aim is to demonstrate its influence as a regional power.
Georgian President Eduard A. Shervardnadze, who pushed the policy of perestroika (reform) as foreign minister of the Soviet Union in its waning years, must be well aware of Russia’s traditional diplomatic thinking. Perhaps that is why he has been dealing calmly with the whole issue, trying to avoid any comment or action that might provoke Moscow.
Given its perceived stakes in Chechnya and in the Caucasus in general, it seems unlikely that Russia will simply back down in the face of a U.S. warning. In fact, with a U.S. invasion of Iraq looming large, the Putin government is reportedly moving to stake out its position in the region. One theory is that Moscow would approve of U.S. military action against Baghdad in exchange for a U.S. acquiescence to Russian control over Georgia.
Whether true or not, this kind of deal — which ignores the sovereignty of a small state — is dangerous. Even more disturbing, there is something common between Mr. Putin’s rationale of “self-defense” and Mr. Bush’s “pre-emptive strike” doctrine. Both positions are underscored by a belief that an act of aggression is justified as a means of removing a recognized terrorist threat.
The danger is that this logic might be expanded and applied to the Chechen conflict in the name of fighting terrorism. Moscow’s massive military operation in Chechnya may have boosted Mr. Putin’s popularity at home, but escalating it to an all-out antiterror war under the pretext of self-defense will not likely bring enduring peace to the strife-torn republic. Russia should face the reality of the endless bloodshed there and start exploring possibilities for dialogue. Military force is not a cure-all.
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