Russia's Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov met with US President George W. Bush on September 20. The talks reportedly focused on Iraq and other strategic issues. The United States wants Russia to support a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. It is widely believed that Russian support would lead to the passage of one, but Igor Ivanov declined to comment on Moscow's position on the Iraqi question. But Moscow has sent signals that it might just support the resolution that Washington wantsfor a price.
Part of this price, several Russian politicians and commentators have been saying, is for the United States to give Moscow a "free hand" to attack "Islamic terrorists" in neighboring Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive] This is a deal that Washington should not make.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 11 issued an ultimatum to Georgia: establish control over Chechen fighters in the Pankisi, or Russia might intervene. Moscow claims that such intervention would be justifiable under the UN charter, which entitles a country to take military action in self-defense. Putin and other Russian officials assert that Eduard Shevardnadze's government is unable to guarantee stability in the Pankisi Gorge. Indeed, some Russian even claim that the Georgian government is actually helping the radical Islamic fighters there. Either way, Moscow has sought to portray its desire to intervene in the Pankisi Gorge as being just as much a part of the general war on terrorism as Washington's intervention in Afghanistan and proposed intervention in Iraq.
The situation in Georgia, though, is not at all equivalent to Afghanistan or Iraq. The United States intervened in Afghanistan because its Taliban government was protecting the al Qaeda leaders who had organized the September 11 attacks. The United States proposes to intervene in Iraq because Saddam Hussein is a threat to neighboring states, his fellow Iraqis, and even to global security. Georgia, by contrast, poses no such threat. Tbilisi also has pursued pro-Western policies, cooperating with the United States on a number of issues, including the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Whatever its other failings, the government of predominantly Orthodox Christian Georgia is not a sponsor of Islamic terrorism, as some in Moscow have alleged. The reason so many Chechensrebels and refugees alikehave fled to the Pankisi Gorge is not because Georgia has invited them there, but because of Russia's brutal campaign in Chechnya has driven them there.
If the Bush Administration agrees to tacitly grant Moscow a "free hand" in Georgia, the Russian military could easily launch the same type of brutal campaign in the Pankisi Gorge that it has been conducting in Chechnya. Moscow could also be expected to make use of such an opportunity to further its efforts to reduce, if not eliminate, Georgia's sovereignty. The end result could be that Russian oil companies, and the Russian politicians they support, could effectively establish a controlling influence over the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. Moscow would then stand to not only reap petro-profits, but also gain leverage over another former Soviet republic, Azerbaijan, whose oil is due to be shipped via this pipeline.
Instead of making a potential Iraq-Georgia trade with Moscow, the United States should encourage Russia and Georgia to work jointly to remove the radical Islamic presence there that threatens them both. It might help the Georgian government overcome its understandable fear of Russia if the United States, and perhaps other Western nations, also became involved in this operation.
If Russia does insist on intervening unilaterally in Georgia, we should hold Moscow to the same standard there that it is holding us to in Iraq: intervention should take place only after it is authorized by the UN Security Council. Georgia, though, is not Iraq. We must not let Moscow treat it as if it were.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.