U.S. Seeing Chechens Russia's Way - May Be to Putin's Chagrin


The acting U.S. ambassador to Georgia has selectively linked Russia's Chechen rebellion to Osama bin Laden. The statement hands Russia a potentially poisoned reward for its cooperation in the war on terrorism. Depending on how the Moscow-Washington relationship evolves, Russia either will be able to pursue Chechen militants based in Georgia proper with a free hand -- a longtime goal -- or be forced to accept a U.S. deployment to Georgia, Moscow's nightmare scenario.


Philip Ramler, the acting U.S. ambassador to the former Soviet state of Georgia, selectively linked Russia's Chechen rebellion to Osama bin Laden in an interview published Feb. 11. The Achali Versiya newspaper quoted him as saying that "a few dozen mujahideen fighters from Afghanistan have appeared in the Caucasus region. … We know that several mujahideen have taken cover in the Pankisi Gorge and are in contact with the Arab terrorist Khattab, who in turn has contacts with Osama bin Laden."

Khattab is the nom de guerre of a Jordanian-born militant affiliated with Chechen fighters. The statement hands Russia, which has long sought to link the Chechens to bin Laden's al Qaeda network, a potentially poisoned reward for its assistance in Washington's war against al Qaeda. Depending on how the Moscow-Washington relationship evolves, Russia either will be able to pursue Chechen militants based in Georgia proper with impunity -- a long-standing goal -- or be forced to accept a U.S. deployment to Georgia, Moscow's nightmare scenario.

This double-edged scenario will be one more test of Russia's commitment to the United States and to the West. Although President Vladimir Putin was swift to declare himself an ally in the U.S.-led war against terrorism, payoffs to his country have so far been slow to materialize.

Until recently, both Tbilisi and Washington maintained that Russia's conflict with the Chechens -- and in particular with Chechens in the Pankisi Gorge -- was unrelated to any international Islamic network. Ramler's statements seem to say that Washington now stands convinced of a connection.

This is even more evident when the ambassador's words are combined with recent admissions from Tbilisi. Georgian Security Minister Valery Khaburdzania said Feb. 6 on Georgian television that Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev, who like Khattab is sought by Russian forces, was probably in the Pankisi Gorge. The gorge is home to Georgia's native Chechen minority as well as roughly 7,000 refugees from Russia's Chechen conflict. Three days later, Khaburdzania announced that Georgian security forces had detained several Saudi and Jordanian citizens, supposedly linked to al Qaeda, who were allegedly trying to create a terrorist base in the Pankisi from which to launch attacks on Russia.

However, Ramler's statements are both boon and bane to Moscow.

Although he was careful to differentiate between Chechen independence fighters and al Qaeda-linked mujahideen such as Khattab, he broadly vindicated the Russian position in the Chechen war. That tacit endorsement empowers Moscow to either push Tbilisi to take forceful action against Chechens in the Pankisi or else allow Russian forces to take matters into their own hands.

The admission might ultimately be used against Russia's interests, however. U.S. President George W. Bush clearly stated in his State of the Union address that he would strike at terrorists in places where governments either would not or could not rout them. Georgia, where two regions are already completely beyond central control, is a clear candidate for such intervention.

It is a willing one as well. Tbilisi has tried, and failed, for years to get international forces stationed on its soil to bolster its independence from Russia. With the Pankisi declared an al Qaeda hot spot -- with Moscow's blessing -- the United States now has a rationale to station troops at former Russian bases within Georgia. Vaziani, a base just outside Tbilisi that Russian forces abandoned in 2001, would fit the bill almost perfectly.

Ramler's statements give the United States a new set of options for dealing with al Qaeda, Tbilisi and Moscow.

For Tbilisi, his words make clear the price of toeing the U.S. line at a time when most of Washington's allies are publicly challenging Bush's "axis of evil" stance. While European allies can hem, haw and gripe about U.S. hegemony from a secure position, Washington could sell Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze out to the Russians if he so much as arches a bushy eyebrow.

For Moscow, the issue is leverage. The presence of U.S. troops in Georgia would be far more threatening to Russia's long-term interests than comparable deployments to Central Asia. There is little Russia could do to stop the United States if it chooses to intervene in Georgia. Putting U.S. troops into Georgia -- which borders NATO ally Turkey -- could presage Georgian membership in the alliance itself. That puts Russia in the awkward position of needing to please the United States -- its "ally" in the war on terrorism -- in order to avoid being flanked by NATO, its Cold War foe.

Moreover, it means Washington could dangle Georgia as a prize -- or a hammer -- as it considers military action against Iraq. Moscow firmly opposes any new military action against Baghdad. All of Iraq's other friends, however, have fallen away for their own reasons, leaving Moscow alone behind Saddam Hussein.

As for al Qaeda: Whether it is Moscow or Washington that takes action in the Pankisi, its militants will be left with one less place to hide.


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