BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Russian Polish Albanian Greek Czech Ukrainian Serbian Turkish Romanian
BBCi NEWS   SPORT   WEATHER   WORLD SERVICE   A-Z INDEX     

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Europe  
News Front Page
Africa
Americas
Asia-Pacific
Europe
Middle East
South Asia
UK
Business
Entertainment
Science/Nature
Technology
Health
-------------
Talking Point
-------------
Country Profiles
In Depth
-------------
Programmes
-------------
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
SERVICES
-------------
LANGUAGES
EDITIONS
Thursday, 12 September, 2002, 15:54 GMT 16:54 UK
Why Russia threatens Georgia over Pankisi
Russian Mi-26 helicopter troop carrier similar to one which crashed in Chechnya
Russia is angry about military setbacks in Chechnya

Russia has been angry about the presence of Chechen rebels in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge for years.

It has long been pressing for permission to send its forces over the border to flush them out.

Map of Georgia showing Pankisi Gorge
So why, now, is Russia suddenly threatening to do so without permission?

There is a general consensus in Russia at least that it has something to do with US plans to attack Iraq.

"Russia is offering the US a deal: Iraq in exchange for Georgia," says the Kommersant newspaper.

According to this theory, Russia is seizing the opportunity provided by Iraq to satisfy its desire to make a show of strength on a weaker neighbour's territory, and to hit the rebels sheltering there.

Russian President Vladimir Putin understands that war in Iraq is inevitable, but wants to get as many concessions as he can for giving his consent.

Stopping US strikes

Another theory, put forward among others by the Russian right-of-centre politician Irina Khakamada, is that Mr Putin's real intention is to make the US think twice about attacking Iraq.


The context for this sabre-rattling is the unpopularity in Russia of Mr Putin's pro-Western foreign policy, both among the military and the population at large

Some apparent support for this idea comes from the military analyst Pavel Felgengauer, who says that by the end of the month there will be too much snow for a Russian raid - by ground forces - to be a realistic option.

However, it is not probable that the US would think twice for long.

The US, ultimately, is likely to go ahead with its attack on Iraq whether or not Russia is threatening a "tit-for-tat" operation in the Pankisi Gorge.

The only result would be a severe deterioration, possibly a crisis of relations, between Moscow and Washington.

Whatever the real motivation, the context for this sabre-rattling is the unpopularity in Russia of Mr Putin's pro-Western foreign policy, both among the military, and the population at large.

Saving face

This week, the Ekho Moskvy radio station polled its listeners - some of the most liberal in the country - to discover their views of George Bush and his government's foreign policy. More than half - 52% - were very critical.

Mr Putin remains very popular, polls show, but he cannot ignore the fact that his policies are not. He has to do something, and a futile verbal assault on Washington is not likely to be top of his list.

Although Mr Putin says he is "not convinced" that force is the best option for dealing with Iraq, he has also indicated in the past that he is not in principle against the removal of Saddam Hussein.

The Pankisi operation - whether it becomes fact, or remains just a threat - could therefore be, for him, a face-saving measure.

'Toothless'

If Georgia were to agree to a joint operation with Russia, that might be more palatable to the US. Yet another possibility would be a trilateral operation, involving some of the US troops currently in Georgia to train the Georgian army.

The US-based Stratfor website, sometimes a good reflection of the views of the CIA, lambasted the recent Georgian sweep of the Pankisi Gorge, describing it as "toothless" and of benefit only to "al-Qaeda and its local Islamist allies".

The US has also turned against Chechen rebel leader, Aslan Maskhadov - officials now say they are "reluctant" to present him to Russia as a negotiating partner.

It has also said in the past that it believes al-Qaeda forces are sheltering in the gorge.

So, while the US will continue to support Georgia's territorial integrity to the hilt, it too would probably like to see tough action in Pankisi.

See also:

12 Sep 02 | Europe
05 Aug 02 | Europe
22 May 02 | Country profiles
Internet links:


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.


E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Europe stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |
Programmes