Russia's foreign minister has warned that the presence of U.S. troops in Georgia could "aggravate" the situation in the region. But experts believe there is little Moscow can do to prevent a possible American military buildup in the region except ask to be included in a joint operation on alleged Al-Qaeda fighters who may be hiding there.
News that the U.S. is considering sending military advisers to Georgia to restore order in a lawless area bordering Chechnya has sparked strong reaction from the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said yesterday such a development might destabilize the area.
"Regarding the possibility of U.S. soldiers appearing in Georgia, from our point of view, that could further aggravate the situation in the region, which is already difficult enough," Ivanov said. "This is our position, and Washington is well aware of it."
The U.S. is reportedly considering sending as many as 200 military advisers to Georgia to train law-enforcement agencies in fighting terrorism. In addition, the U.S. is likely to increase military technical assistance to Georgia, an ally in the region.
The official aim of the operation is to help authorities assert control over the Pankisi Gorge, a crime-ridden northeastern area which is also believed to harbor Chechen separatist fighters. Washington has also said the area is home to Al-Qaeda fighters who fled Afghanistan to escape the U.S. military operation there.
It's not clear from the reports whether the U.S. troops would participate directly in any Georgian security crackdown, although Washington has said it does not envision a combat role for the troops.
It's also not clear whether the U.S. is considering setting up a military base in the country -- as some Georgian media have already speculated.
Defense analysts say strong obstacles exist to any extended U.S. troop presence. They say the U.S. would first need to ensure that Georgia is stable. They also say Washington must be careful not to upset Russia, which considers Georgia and the South Caucasus as lying within its sphere of influence.
Giora Shamis is editor in chief of the Jerusalem-based "Debka File," an electronic defense newsletter. Shamis's publication reported on 23 February that a small number of U.S. elite troops had already arrived in Tbilisi to assess Georgia's security needs. This information was confirmed by the U.S. military European Command in Germany.
Shamis told our correspondent that he believes it would be difficult for Putin to object to a U.S. operation in Georgia since he agreed with U.S. president George W. Bush to cooperate against terrorism in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks.
"[There] is a mutual and deep understanding between the two presidents since 23 September, when they had a most important telephone conversation [during which] they agreed upon this kind of cooperation," Shamis said. "Since then, [this agreement] has been working very efficiently and certainly they are going to solidify it at the next [U.S.-Russian] summit on 25 May."
Shamis continued: "Even if there are disagreements, misunderstandings, and conflicting interests between the two countries, still they agreed to work hand-in-hand in the war against terrorism. Since the [possible] landing of U.S. forces will be part of the war against terrorism, I think [the Russians] will agree to it even if they are presenting this as being against their basic interests. [Besides,] that could not [be possible] without the [clearance] of the highest Russian echelons [of power]."
It's not known yet whether or to what extent the Russian military would be willing to agree to the U.S. deployment.
Russia's military leadership -- in contrast to the political leadership -- has been critical at times of the U.S.-led war on terrorism and U.S. moves to establish military bases in Central Asia.
Some 1,500 American soldiers are currently deployed at Uzbekistan's southern Khanabad airfield, near the Afghan border, and U.S. troops are building an air base near the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
Svante Cornell is a regional expert at the School for Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University in Washington and editor of the newsletter, "Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst."
He said that despite objections from some quarters, Russia has little alternative other than to agree to a U.S. military presence in Georgia. He said the situation is similar to the one in Central Asia.
"I don't think that anybody in the Russian leadership wants an American presence. But they realized that it is politically impossible for Russia to oppose it. It would not fit with Putin's policy to try to appear as an American ally," Cornell said. "If you want to be an American ally and if you want to gain further influence in NATO, you cannot try to prevent an American military presence in Central Asia. That is impossible. They realize that, from a political perspective, they have to accept it -- at least for the time being."
But Cornell said any U.S. presence in Georgia may further strain relations between Putin and the military.
"The frustration [among] the Russian military at Putin's friendly relations with the U.S. and at allowing -- or not opposing -- the American presence in Central Asia will increase further now, I think," Cornell said. "But the thing is, what can the Russians really do? There is not much they can do to prevent the Americans from coming in, [although] they can increase again their pressure on Georgia. But they also know that an increased military presence in Georgia will make it much more difficult for them to [exert pressure on] the Georgian government the way they've been doing for the past couple of years. "
One of the means that Russia could use to exert pressure on Tbilisi would be to delay negotiations over its planned withdrawal from military bases it has in Georgia's Adzhara autonomous republic and in the mostly ethnic-Armenian region of Akhalkalaki.
Georgia insists Moscow pull out its troops within two or three years, whereas Moscow, citing financial problems, says it needs more time.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Koshovan, speaking to reporters shortly after news of the possible U.S. military operation in Georgia broke, reiterated Moscow's stance that the pullout might take up to 14 years.
Moscow could also use its influence over the leaderships of Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In the early 1990s, both separatist and unrecognized republics fought against Georgian troops with the active support of the Russian military. Despite Moscow-brokered cease-fire agreements, they are still formally at war with Tbilisi and have remained de facto under Russian control for the past 10 years.
Abkhazia's Foreign Minister Valerii Arshba said yesterday that should Tbilisi decide to use the presence of U.S. soldiers to forcibly reassert its control over the disputed Korodi Gorge -- an area in Abkhaz territory that is partly controlled by separatist troops, partly by Georgian forces -- Sukhumi will take "all necessary measures to defend itself."
Abkhaz Prime Minister Anri Djergenia also said yesterday that Sukhumi might ask to become an "associate member" of the Russian Federation.
In June, the Russian parliament adopted a controversial bill that, in principle, facilitates the admission of foreign states, or parts of foreign countries, into the Russian Federation.
In December, the then-future leader of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoev, also said that should he be elected president, he would see that his region is integrated into the Russian Federation as an "associate member." In comments made to Russia's state-controlled ORT television channel yesterday, Kokoev made no reference to his earlier threat, but said he might ask Moscow to send troops to South Ossetia.
In the meantime, Russia will continue to insist that it is included in any military operation in the Pankisi Gorge -- as Foreign Minister Ivanov suggested yesterday.
"Russia has repeatedly offered Tbilisi to join forces in order to put an end to the terrorist threat. This is important for Georgia, this is important for Russia, and this is important for the stability in the Caucasus," Ivanov said. "Moscow reaffirms its readiness to help the friendly Georgian people fight the terrorist threat in order to build a peaceful life in the Caucasus, a life that would be based on mutual respect and neighborly terms."
Since the 11 September attacks in the U.S., Moscow has been trying to prove its claims that the Chechen leadership is linked with Al-Qaeda and that separatist fighters are hiding in Pankisi Gorge.
Asked whether Russia could possibly try to save face by pressing the U.S. to accept its cooperation on the Pankisi issue, regional analyst Cornell said: "That sounds likely. I think this is what they are going to do. I am not sure how the United States will respond to that, [but] it will be difficult for the Americans to ignore it. I think that the U.S. military and some in the [political leadership] would not be very happy to cooperate with the Russians in this matter. But in some symbolic way, they [may] have to do it. But it is a little bit too early to say."
Addressing Georgia's parliament, Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili said today a Russian military crackdown in Pankisi would be "totally unacceptable" for Tbilisi. But he said Georgia remains ready to examine any other offer of cooperation that would emanate from Moscow.
A delegation of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) will visit Tbilisi soon, and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is expected to discuss the Pankisi issue with Putin when he attends a CIS summit tomorrow near the Kazakh city of Almaty.