Georgian police have begun to surround the rugged Pankisi Gorge where suspected Al Qaeda fighters may be hiding out, while Georgia's Army awaits the arrival later this month of up to 200 US elite troops who will provide training and equipment for a full military push into the lawless region.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, many say that the global war on terrorism has turned into a campaign to whittle away at Russia's traditional sphere of influence.
Last week's announcement that US forces will be deployed to the Caucasus republic of Georgia hit like a bomb in Moscow. President Vladimir Putin, who has gambled his political fortunes on throwing Russia's allegiance behind the American-led global antiterror coalition, was quick to insist the move poses "no tragedy" for Moscow.
But top Russian experts say that since Sept. 11, US influence has triumphantly marched through the oil-and-gas-rich former Soviet republics of Central Asia and is now taking root in Georgia, Russia's southern bastion for 200 years. Georgia is also part of a proposed pipeline route that would carry oil from the Caspian Sea to international markets.
"This is only the beginning," says General Makhmut Gareyev, president of Russia's official Academy of Military Sciences. "The US is establishing a permanent presence, in a solid ring around Russia."
The escalating crisis around the Pankisi Gorge, where Russia says as many as 2,000 Chechen rebels and their foreign allies may be operating, reveals a fundamental Kremlin miscalculation, say a growing number of Russian experts. Moscow expected that its support of the US-led war on terror in Afghanistan would translate into American backing for Russia to strengthen "law and order" in its own backyard. The Kremlin has argued that Chechen rebels fighting against Moscow are just a branch of the global terror conspiracy presided over by Osama bin Laden.
Over the past few months Moscow has increasingly pressured Georgia to let Russian forces move in to clean up the Pankisi Gorge, and has even hinted it might be ready to do so even without Georgia's permission.
"Moscow has become a prisoner of its own rhetoric," says Sergei Kazyannov, a senior expert with the independent Institute for National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow. "We kept saying that Chechen rebels are the same as Al Qaeda terrorists, and must be dealt with. We assumed the US would turn a blind eye while we took care of that business on our own border, in Georgia. Instead, we opened the door for the US to step in. Once again, the Americans have turned the tables on us, and used the war on terror to expand their own influence."
Both Georgian and US officials insist that the American special forces, set to arrive in mid-March, will only be used to train an elite unit of about 1,500 Georgian troops in antiterrorist tactics. Georgia's 20,000-man army is generally considered to be little more than an armed rabble which has been spectacularly unsuccessful at maintaining order beyond the capital of Tbilisi for much of the past decade.
Two Georgian regions - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - have declared independence and several others - like the Pankisi Gorge - a nest of drug trafficking and other crime, remain no-go zones for Tbilisi authorities.
Last week Georgian police began setting up roadblocks around the gorge, and they claim to have arrested several foreigners, including two Saudis and a Jordanian. But Georgia has launched similar police operations in the past, with no lasting effect. "Georgia cannot possibly restore law and order to Pankisi on its own," says Arkady Baskayev, a former top Russian police commander and member of the state Duma's security committee. "They have neither the will nor the capability to make any impact on the problem."
About 7,000 refugees from war-torn Chechnya are living in the gorge, along with hundreds of Kists, a Chechen tribe who are Georgian citizens.
Tbilisi admits that perhaps 200 armed Chechen rebels are in the area; Moscow claims the number is 10 times higher. There may also be dozens of Arabs and other foreigners, some of them possibly Taliban and Al Qaeda stragglers from Afghanistan. But while Russia wants the entire region subdued, and all refugees repatriated to Chechnya, Georgian officials express more limited goals.
"Georgia aims to restore order to the Pankisi Gorge using only police methods," says Zurab Abashidze, Georgia's ambassador to Moscow. "Among the people living in Pankisi are many Georgians and others whose situation is unclear. Any return of refugees to Russia must occur voluntarily. If police operations to not succeed, only then will we decide if a military push is necessary. But if military forces should be needed, only Georgian troops will be used."
Russian experts say that if the Georgian Army moves into Pankisi, they will almost certainly require US air support and reconnaissance, which would offend Moscow as much as the use of US ground troops.
"The appearance of US forces on our southern border cannot be accepted in Moscow," says Yury Gladkeyevich, an expert with the Interfax-AVN independent military news agency. "Georgia cannot restore order on its own, and it is making a huge strategic mistake by turning to the US for help."
Last week Dmitri Rogozin, head of the state Duma's foreign affairs committee, warned that if US forces go into action in Georgia, Russia's parliament will move to extend official recognition to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Abkhazian leaders, fearful that a rearmed Georgia may turn its forces against them, have said they are intensifying efforts to secede.
Even pro-Western Russian legislators voice concern about the spread of American power into the former USSR. "If Georgian leaders make the mistake of orienting towards America, it could lead to the downfall of (President Eduard) Shevardnadze's regime," says Boris Nemtsov, leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces. "The Americans are welcome to help. But history has demonstrated repeatedly that Georgia cannot live without Russia."