Why U.S. Arrival in Georgia Has Moscow Hopping Mad

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Georgian Interior Ministry trooper guards a check-point in the Pankisi Gorge

As a reward for backing the U.S. war on terrorism, Moscow expected American support for its own war in Chechnya — and to be treated as a geopolitical partner. That's why it will feel kicked in the teeth by the deployment of U.S. military advisers and helicopters to the former Soviet republic of Georgia on Wednesday — and unconfirmed reports that hundreds more may be on the way to support anti-terrorism efforts. "We think it could further aggravate the situation in the region, which is difficult as it is," Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov said Wednesday. "That is our position and Washington is well aware of it."

For starters, the governments of Russia and Georgia have very different ideas on who the bad guys are. Moscow has long demanded the right to attack all Chechen fighters based inside Georgian territory, in particular a group of Chechen rebels sheltering in the Pankisi Gorge. Georgia, eager to break free of two centuries of Russian influence, has labeled the rebels "Chechen freedom fighters" — and has refused Russia permission to launch operations in the Pankisi.

Now they've invited the U.S. to come into Pankisi instead, to train Georgian forces for an ongoing anti-terrorism mission. The U.S. and Georgia say their target will be about a dozen Arab extremists based in the area, believed to be long-time volunteers with a militant Chechen faction (rather than stragglers from Afghanistan). But they won't be launching an all-out campaign against Chechen fighters in the Pankisi.

Russia sees the entire Chechen separatist guerrilla movement as indistinguishable from al-Qaida, and won't appreciate the distinction being drawn by the Georgians between the small al-Qaida element they intend to pursue and the bulk of the Chechen fighters who will, presumably, be left unmolested unless they challenge Georgian authorities. But Moscow's chagrin is ultimately fueled by the profound strategic consequences of the arrival of U.S. forces in what has traditionally been Russia's backyard.

Georgia's strategic significance to both Washington and Moscow runs far deeper than either the campaign against al-Qaida or the war in Chechnya. Georgia has been considered the strategic key to protecting Russia's southern flank since the days of the Czars. More immediately, it forms an indispensable part of the pipeline route favored by the U.S. for pumping Caspian sea oil and natural gas to Turkey without passing through either Russia or Iran.

The routing of Caspian Sea oil has been the central focus of geopolitical maneuvering in the region over the past decade. And Russia has spent much of that period trying unsuccessfully to pressure Georgia's president, former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, to toe Moscow's line. Moscow helped facilitate the breakaway of Abkhazia from Georgia, in order to weaken the government in Tbilisi. Georgians insist that Russia has also been behind some of the numerous coup- and assassination attempts against Shevardnadze. Certainly Moscow has made no secret of its anxiety over the Georgians' cozy relationship with the U.S. — or of its unhappiness at having to give up longstanding military bases in the former Soviet republic.

A substantial U.S. deployment over Moscow's objections would end the illusion that Russian cooperation against the Taliban will buy Western endorsement of Moscow's often brutal military campaign in Chechnya. The U.S. military has made clear it has no intention of cooperating with Russian forces against Chechen fighters in the Pankisi. The objective of any mission, officials say, would be to help the Georgian government regain control of an area that had become a haven of criminality and a sanctuary for a small number of al-Qaida operatives.

President Vladimir Putin gambled that signing on to the war on terrorism would work to Russia's strategic advantage in the Caucasus; instead Shevardnadze appears to have outmaneuvered him by using the campaign against al-Qaida as a pretext to invite the Americans in. If the U.S. military sets up shop there, it will be read as the geopolitical equivalent of getting Russia evicted from its own backyard — and a crafty Georgian move to turn Russia's cooperative attitude towards with President Bush into an opportunity to decisively break free of Moscow's influence. The personal relations between Presidents Bush and Putin may be warm and fuzzy, but geopolitics is still geopolitics.

With reporting by Paul Quinn-Judge/Moscow