US-Russia ties jolted by crisis in Georgia

Georgia sent 1,000 troops into Pankisi Gorge Sunday.

The free hand given to Russia to prosecute its own "war on terrorism" – an ongoing fight against Chechen separatists – is now being slapped by Washington.

Russia received a stinging rebuke from the White House over the weekend, after Russian planes on Friday reportedly bombed targets some 20 miles inside the border of its southern neighbor Georgia. Sunday, a force of 1,000 Georgian Interior Ministry troops began an anticriminal, antiterror operation in the volatile Pankisi Gorge, according to wire reports. The gorge is a suspected refuge for Islamic militants.

Analysts say the American scolding is the sign of deeper unease with a growing number of Russian policies.

The crisis in Georgia – where US Special Operations units are now training Georgian forces – is the latest in a recent string of moves by Russia that fly in the face of American strategy. They include deepening friendships and military deals with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea – all members of what George W. Bush calls an "axis of evil" – as well as China.

"There are a whole array of issues where the US and Russia are at loggerheads, from the Caucasus to the Yellow Sea," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst in Moscow. "If [Russian President] Vladimir Putin will not intervene to change this pattern of policies, Russian-American close cooperation may be at an end."

Mr. Putin has turned Russia into a newfound friend of Washington, fostering warm personal ties with Mr. Bush, and bringing Russia closer to Europe and to NATO. But he has also struggled against many members of Russia's political and military establishments to shift Russia toward the West.

One recent bright spot in US-Russia relations: Before dawn last Thursday, US, Russian, and Yugoslav officials cooperated secretly to remove enough vulnerable, weapons-grade nuclear material to make 2 1/2 nuclear bombs from a research reactor near Belgrade. It was flown to a secure facility in Russia to be blended down.

Friendship at a crossroads

While that operation attests to the power of US-Russia partnership, other concerns are emerging.

"There are serious forces [in Russia's ruling elite] that want to change Russia's very close relationship with Washington, and right now they are on the verge of success," Mr. Felgenhauer says. "Moscow has to make a decision: Is it an American ally? Or does it just make ad hoc partnerships, when our interests coincide?"

The US reaction to the latest Russo-Georgian crisis, which was sparked a month ago when Georgia refused to extradite 13 Chechen fighters who were forced by a Russian attack to flee across the border, and were arrested by Georgian security officials, is the sternest warning to Moscow to date.

At least four bombing runs – confirmed by members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has monitors on the Russo-Georgian border – left one man dead and seven wounded, according to Georgian officials. Russia denies that any bombs were dropped.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Saturday that the US "regrets this loss of life and deplores the violation of Georgia's sovereignty."

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.

Crackdown in the Pankisi Gorge

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."

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