|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 March 2002
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Closing in on Russia?
The Americans are coming to the South Caucasus as the US-led quest to quash international terrorism in the aftermath of 11 September shifts focus to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, writes Negar Azimi
The American-led campaign to eliminate international terrorism in the aftermath of 11 September will soon be making its debut in the Caucasus as the Bush administration shifts its penetrating gaze to the former Soviet republic of Georgia. As many as 200 US military personnel are expected in Georgia later this month, ostensibly to train the army in counter-insurgency tactics, while also providing intelligence, technical support and equipment.
This latest development has ruffled Russian feathers and marks an unprecedented and increasingly permanent US expansion in the region and into the Russian backyard.
The focus of American dabbling is the remote Pankisi Gorge, which lines the Chechen border, Russia's troublesome breakaway republic in which two full-scale wars -- one ongoing -- have been waged in the past decade. The gorge, some 150 kilometres northeast of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, consists of a harsh, rock-laden landscape in which an estimated 1,800 Chechen rebel fighters reside in what bears a striking resemblance to Al-Qa'eda's Tora Bora stronghold. While Pankisi has long existed as an ideal base from which to launch incursions into Chechnya as well as constituting a discreet route from which to smuggle munitions and manpower into Chechnya, reports in recent weeks allege that the region additionally serves as a haven for Al- Qa'eda exiles who have found a niche in the context of the decade-long Chechen struggle for independence. Last month alone, over two dozen Al-Qa'eda combatants were traced to the gorge, with most believed to be of Jordanian and Saudi descent. This has rendered a US administration intent upon stamping out all traces of the notorious terrorist network exceedingly nervous.
For Russia, a US military presence in its immediate neighbourhood is an uncomfortable prospect. Georgia's moderate image has long made it in American eyes appear as a likely candidate for an extension of American influence. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, a Gorbachev-era minister, has cosied-up in recent months to the Americans in remarkable fashion in his quest to enlist a hard- hitting ally for his efforts to minimise Russian influence in his country -- a guiding principle in this former satellite state's foreign policy. Therefore, last week's announcement that Georgia is planning to cooperate militarily with the US constitutes a virtual diplomatic coup for the tiny nation and its crafty leader.
By all accounts, Russia should have earned points for throwing its weight behind the US-led campaign in Afghanistan. According to this scenario, the US would finally acknowledge Russia's complaints surrounding the Chechen threat and abort its already minimal human rights critique of Russia's campaign in Chechnya. Presumably, were it to be proven that there are links between the rebel fighters and Al-Qa'eda militants, this would only further the case for utilising US aid in ending the Chechen insurgency. Thus, last week's announcement has left Russia in shock and with a strong feeling, in certain circles, that it may have been slighted. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov expressed this sentiment on the state television channel ORT, alleging that the intended move will only serve to "aggravate" the situation in the region.
The Russian media has jumped onto the announcement as further proof of Russia's declining might; the Komsomolskaya Pravda deemed the news "a serious Russian defeat," and the Nezavisimaya Gazeta cried that "the ring of Western influence is getting tighter and tighter. Russia is continuing to lose its positions in post- Soviet countries."
Much of Russia's discomfort at the prospect of Georgia's planned military collaboration lies in that Georgia and Russia have different conceptions of who exactly the bad guys are in their complex geopolitical neighbourhood. While Russia asserts that the problem lies with the secessionist Chechen refugee guerrillas who launch incursions into their territory from the Pankisi Gorge, Georgia prefers to term the rebels "freedom fighters" and categorically rejects any prospect of Russian intervention to quell their activities. Instead, Georgia draws a sharp line between Chechen separatist guerrillas and the Al-Qa'eda operatives it suspects of inhabiting the Pankisi Gorge.
Nevertheless, Al-Qa'eda and the Chechen separatists appear to Russia to be one and the same. In fact, Ivanov went as far as to suggest that Osama Bin Laden himself was hiding in Pankisi, in mid-February. The allegation was later acknowledged as unfounded, even absurd, by the head of the Russian Army's General Staff General Anatolii Kvashnin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has maintained a mysteriously low profile and visibly refrained from commenting on the affair in the days following the US announcement. In a brief statement made at a meeting of leaders from the Commonwealth of Independent States in Kazakhstan, Putin -- standing next to Schevardnaze -- abruptly softened Moscow's fiery rhetoric, noting that the development was "no tragedy." He continued, "Why should they (US forces) be in Central Asia and not in Georgia?" Needless to say, Putin's conciliatory, almost indifferent stance, was wholly in opposition to the reactions made by Ivanov and several others in Russia's higher political echelons. It could conceivably signal the extent to which the president has adopted the US line. Indeed, it seems that Putin has turned the other cheek.
Nevertheless, the US move does present a tiny victory for a Kremlin team that has long been trying to point out that there are connections between Chechen guerrillas and Bin Laden's cronies. Michael McFaul, senior associate at Moscow's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and professor of political science at Stanford University, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the US operation may serve to affirm the message that Putin has been trying to convey all along. "In Putin's view, the US operation in Pankisi justifies his war in Chechnya," McFaul explained.
Moreover, the Russian military do not have the capacity to conduct meaningful operations in the gorge, especially as any Russian action would be considered an outright infringement of Georgian sovereignty by the Georgians -- effectively an act of war. The US, in a sense, is doing Russia's fighting for it. In this way, it parallels the US bombing of the Taliban, following years of Russians rhetoric regarding the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia. Putin is pragmatic on these issues and happy to adhere to the US line as long as it serves Russian security interests.
As for the reasons why the US has launched this initiative, the war on terrorism is just one facet of the overall equation. There is much to be gained, even beyond short-term security objectives, by vying for an additional foothold in the Caucasus. Not surprisingly, Caspian Sea oil is high on the list of commodities up for grabs, particularly as Georgia forms an essential link in the pipeline route proposed by the US for pumping the region's abundant stores of oil and natural gas to Turkey. Incidentally, the route bypasses Russia and Iran.
According to Svante Cornell, a regional expert at the Washington DC-based School for Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University and editor of the Central Asia- Caucasus Analyst newsletter, the military dimension of the American initiative is largely rooted in regional geography. "[The Americans] realise that they need to have some type of military influence over the Caucasus. How do you supply bases in Central Asia? You cannot do it through Russia. You cannot do it through China. And you cannot do it through Iran. That leaves you with two options: either via Afghanistan and Pakistan, or via the Caucasus from Turkey. And I don't think the US want to rely on only one of these two options, especially when the situation in Afghanistan remains unclear," Cornell told the Weekly.
However, Georgia is not the first country in the region to become the focus of American interests. The US has long cultivated military ties to former Soviet republics by providing them with military aid and training under the auspices of NATO's Partnership for Peace initiative. In the wake of the US-led campaign in Afghanistan, the Americans have further consolidated their military presence in and about Central Asia. Some 1,500 US soldiers are currently deployed at Uzbekistan's southern Khabanad airfield, not far from the Afghan border. Construction of an American base near Kyrgyzstan's Manas International Airport is already in the works, while additional US experts are currently stationed at Tajikistan's southern Kulyab air base. In October, the Bush Administration began toying with the idea of lifting existing sanctions on Armenia and Azerbaidjan; indeed, making friends in the region seems a high priority for the US these days.
William Hartung of the New York-based World Policy Institute told Al-Ahram Weekly, "Beyond long-term strategic interests, the Georgian deployment also poses short-term benefits for the US vis-à-vis its domestic constituency. The naval surveillance of Somalia and the deployment of military advisers in the Philippines are there as much for their suggestion of American activity and momentum to the internal audience as for their actual intelligence-gathering benefits. Indeed, last week's announcement may be a means of providing a sense of vigorous activity without actually assuming the inherent risks involved in launching a large-scale operation."
The deployment of elite American forces to Georgia comes on the heels of last month's deployment of 600 US troops to the Philippines to train local forces in combating insurgent Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. Yemen and its porous 1,500 mile Arabian Peninsula coastline has also emerged as an additional focus for the US military which aims to root out suspected Al-Qa'eda cells. Iraq, of course, has been identified as the next major step in the US military campaign. With cells of Bin Laden's virtuoso network reportedly situated in upwards of 60 countries, the international community is left guessing who exactly will be next; after all, is not the birth of a distinct pattern in the works?
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