Citing United Nations statutes concerning the right of "self-defense," Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to send soldiers into Georgia in order to protect Russia's borders from Chechen insurgents. Georgia's embattled president, Eduard Shevardnadze, dismissed Putin's remark as "hasty" and "not acceptable." The Georgian leader pronounced himself "appalled" that Putin would condemn the Georgian government's behavior while remaining silent about the Russian military's brutal behavior in Chechnya.
"I think Russia is a bit angered that we did not allow the Russian army to use Georgian territory and hit Chechnya from behind," Shevardnadze told a television reporter on September 11. "This would transfer the [Chechen] war to our territory, which some people in Russia may want to happen." On September 10, Georgia's foreign minister had dismissed strident remarks by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, which may have prompted Putin to react. Putin has earned a reputation as a canny global politician, though, and his warning's timing and context suggest other motivations. Putin had withheld support for an American invasion of Iraq the previous week. By invoking Russia's right of self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter as clearance to eliminate suspected "terrorist camps" in Georgia, Putin may have set up terms for a trade with the United States while stringently honoring UN principles. Putin did not refer to Chechnya, as Shevardnadze notes. Instead, he instructed his General Staff to "elaborate plans and report on the viability" of attacking "terrorist camps" on Georgian soil. He dubbed the possible strikes "Operation Pursuit."
Political commentators have portrayed Putin's statement as an ultimatum, pegging the Commonwealth of Independent States Presidential Summit in October as Georgia's deadline for stabilizing the largely lawless Pankisi Gorge. In his statement, Putin declared that Georgia should "establish tangible control of its territory, fulfill the international obligations of fighting international terrorism and preclude possible assaults of the international terrorists from its territory to the territory of Russia." Georgian leaders sent mixed signals, while also invoking international law to bolster their positions. Parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze reportedly indicated that Georgia would intensify efforts to detain suspected Chechen militants in the Pankisi Gorge. But the Chair of the Committee on Defense and Security, Irakli Batiashvili, treated Russia as the problem. He said "a call for aggression was to be expected" and said the government should elaborate defense mechanisms and activate international connections to counter the Russian threats.
Putin seems intent on appropriating international law to assert Russia's strategic interests in the region. According to the Interfax news agency, he "stressed that Russia was rigorously observing its international commitments and respected the sovereignty and integrity of other countries, and insisted that the same attitude be shown towards it." On September 12, Putin officially appealed to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and to the UN Security Council and heads of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe countries, giving Russian claims an international scope. Already on September 11, both chambers of the Russian parliament indicated that they would support a possible military operation in Georgia. Victor Ozerov, head of the committee on Defense and Security of the higher chamber, stated that the Council would endorse possible use of the Russian military for the operation in Pankisi gorge of Georgia as Russia "has the right to adequately defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty."
This tactic may have larger ramifications for Russia's role in global decision-making. Some observers suspect Russia seeks a quid pro quo with the United States, which is more vaguely invoking the defense of its own interests as it seeks support for an attack on Iraq. That interpretation might partially explain a statement that Shevardnadze deemed "a major surprise." Shevardnadze also cloaked his response in terms the United Nations would approve. He claimed that in his letter on September 3, 2002, Putin agreed to treat Pankisi as an internal issue for the Georgian government. Therefore, Shevardnadze said, Putin would not risk looking like a bully in front of its European allies and the UN. "I do not think Russia would engage in adventure that would lead to its moral and psychological defeat all over the world," said Shevardnadze.
Shevardnadze's appeal to world judgement may represent an attempt to defeat Putin on his own terms. Many observers agree that is Russia's failure to restore order in Chechnya after 1999 led to lawlessness in Pankisi instead of resulting from it. Moreover, Georgia has showed willingness to cooperate with Russia on the antiterrorism agenda. Georgia has extradited several Chechens, including one suspect in a 1999 series of Moscow apartment bombings. It has also sought Russian and American assistance in training its armed forces to deal with terrorist threats. The US-sponsored Train and Equip Program is underway to provide Georgian military with anti-terror training. Shevardnadze declared the Pankisi problem "mainly solved" in his response to Putin's statement. He has taken foreign diplomats to the gorge in recent weeks, showing a degree of security unthinkable for the present-day Chechnya.
Putin may finally be trying to address domestic political pressure to establish peace in Chechnya at an opportune moment. He made his statement as Americans were marking the anniversary of terrorist strikes on New York and Washington, directly linking Georgia to the terrorism threat. He also wrote to the UN on the eve of a General Assembly meeting where Bush planned to try to convince the international community to endorse possible strikes against Iraq.
Whatever his intent, Putin's timing creates serious risks to Georgia's internal stability. The presence of Russian military bases in Georgia, especially stationing them in breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, stir the fears that Putin's statement can trigger immediate action by frequently unruly Russian generals. They also subject Shevardnadze to intense partisan criticism, as some lawmakers urge a more radical stance against Russia. If Georgia is to suppress further violence and avoid another governmental crisis, it would need a show of international support - support which the United States might feel obliged to mute as it seeks Russia's partnership in an Iraq campaign.
Perhaps sensing difficult days ahead, Parliament speaker Burjanadze raised the possibility of unilateral action on September 12. "If any flying object crosses our airspace without our permission, we will simply shoot it down," she commented.
Jaba Devdariani is a Founding Director of the UN Association of Georgia (www.una.org.ge) and editor of Civil Georgia (www.civil.ge) - Internet magazine offering civil view on life in Georgia.