US-Russia ties jolted by crisis in Georgia
Georgia sent 1,000 troops into Pankisi Gorge Sunday.
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The American stake is not small. US Special Operations units have been helping train and equip Georgian forces since May, in a $64 million program to enable them to establish control over the lawless Pankisi Gorge, a green valley north of Tbilisi, which has been home to hundreds of Islamic militants, including a number of Al Qaeda fighters.Skip to next paragraph
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Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has promised that Georgian security forces some trained by the US troops are beginning operations to clean up the Pankisi, sending in 1,000 Interior Ministry troops Sunday following a warning to Chechen men among the 4,000 Chechen refugees there to leave.
Several previous Russian bombing runs in Georgia and heated claims by senior Russian officials that they would have no choice but to deploy troops into the lawless Pankisi Gorge have met with little more than token US condemnation.
Russia has used many of the same arguments to justify any preemptive attack in the former Soviet state, that the Bush administration is using to justify possible military action against Iraq.
"The Russians pushed too far," says George Khutsishvili, the head of the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi. "The fact that the early American reaction was not so strong, was a sign to Russia ... that they had a free hand in dealing with their neighbors, even if it did not take a humane form."
Moscow's tone has been harsh throughout the crisis. Earlier this month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov called the Pankisi a "nest" of international terrorism and, several days later, added: "It is clear that the Chechen fighters will never be wiped out in Pankisi without Russian military involvement."
There have also been "mistakes" from the Georgian side, says Mr. Khutsishvili. "Not extraditing the Chechen terrorists to Russia was a very dangerous move ... there were several steps that provoked Russia."
Among them was a staunch denial until this month that the Pankisi was home to any militants at all. Operations are beginning now, Khutsishvili says, because "the terrorist groups have left the region. The calculation was: While it was a [militant] stronghold, there would be blood [to establish government control]."
That Washington made such an issue of the Russian air raids and that so many of Russia's recent policy moves appear designed to take advantage of the US war on terror raises questions about Russia's commitment to the anti-terror alliance.
This month alone, Russia has stepped closer to those nations deemed to be strategic enemies by Washington. For example, Moscow and Baghdad agreed to a $40 billion trade and infrastructure deal.
Moscow also announced an agreement with Iran to expand a civilian nuclear reactor deal into a $10 billion program to include six reactors.
Russia continues to sell sophisticated military hardware to China, that Washington fears could help it take on Taiwan or US military forces that might come to the island's defense.
And Putin met in Russia's Far Eastern city of Vladivostok last Friday with North Korean President Kim Jong Il, who is on a marathon train journey in Russia.
"This doesn't mean we are going to begin a new cold war, or will become actively anti-American," says Felgenhauer. "But Georgia would not flare up into an open row between Washington and Moscow, if there weren't other, much more important, issues. They would find ways for more quiet diplomacy."