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Russia and Georgia Face-Off in the Caucasus - 2002-08-21

Tensions are growing between Russia and Georgia in the Caucasus. The immediate cause is the flow of Chechen rebels across the border into Georgia. But there are fears Moscow has larger designs on its small, vulnerable neighbor that achieved independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Georgia is strategically positioned in the Caucasus and is the site of projected pipelines that will carry the region's oil and gas to the West. Analysts say Moscow might use the war on terrorism as a cover to assert greater control over Georgia.

Russian denunciations of Georgia are increasingly strident. Moscow says its neighbor has not done enough to stop Chechen fighters from crossing the Georgian border and taking refuge in the remote Pankisi Gorge. So Russian jet fighters repeatedly violate Georgian air space in pursuit of Chechens.

Georgians ask how far these intrusions will go. Do they have larger aims than just countering Chechens? That may well be, writes Vladimir Socor, a senior analyst of the Jamestown Foundation, in The Wall Street Journal.

He notes top Moscow officials have suggested a trade-off. They will consent to a U.S. attack on Iraq if the United States does not object to their military intervention in Georgia. It is all part of the war on terrorism, they say.

That war already serves as an excuse for the Russians in Chechnya, says Paul Henze, a long time analyst of the Caucasus.

"Putin jumped very rapidly to take advantage of the American war on terrorism to try to get Chechnya enrolled as a major terrorist problem, in which Russia was entitled to take the same kind of measures that the United States has taken against the Taleban," he said.

If Russia would make peace with Chechnya, says Mr. Henze, it would no longer have a Georgia problem.

But he adds Russian ambitions seem to go beyond Chechnya. Moscow is forever stirring up trouble of one kind or another in Georgia. It has connived with separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and is suspected of involvement in assassination attempts on Georgian President Shevardnadze.

In these efforts, says Mr. Henze, the Russians enlist improbable allies.

"The Russians have cultivated various resentful and dissident Georgians. Ironically enough, they have been cultivating people that the Georgians call Zviadists, followers of President Gamsakhurdia, who was hounded out in 1992," he said. "Gamsakhurdia was more anti-Russian than any other figures who have ever emerged onto the public scene in Georgia."

The Russians do not have much choice, says Mr. Henze. Too many of their Georgian allies prefer smuggling to subversion.

Vladimir Socor says there is not a great deal Georgia can do about its powerful northern neighbor. Its army was stripped bare of weaponry when the Russians left and has not been able to cope with the separatist revolts.

But 150 U.S. Green Berets have now arrived to offer some Western support.

"The Pentagon has really been at the vanguard of U.S. policy in the south Caucasus in general and in Georgia specifically," Mr. Socor said. "Pentagon programs have insured the projection of American influence in Georgia. Most recently, the train-and-equip program, run by the Green Berets in Georgia, is training and equipping the Georgian internal security forces, which might by this fall tackle the problem in Pankisi."

Just how Russian, American and Georgian forces in close proximity will get along is a matter of conjecture. A major geopolitical prize is at stake.