Russians cautiously support U.S. troop plan for Georgia

Many don't like proposal for buildup near border but see it as necessary

March 01, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - The Bush administration's plan to dispatch American military advisers to the former Soviet republic of Georgia as part of its anti-terrorist campaign is drawing a mix of muted opposition and grudging support from Russian political leaders.

The government of President Vladimir V. Putin has apparently decided that it needs all the help it can get in battling separatist movements, even if that means letting the American military operate near its borders. And the Kremlin appears to have accepted closer military ties between the West and Georgia, which the government of Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze has long sought.

But there is also some bitterness, for the deployment demonstrates Russia's inability to guarantee peace along its frontiers. "It proves that Russia is weak because Russia cannot resolve its own problems," said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus with the Moscow Carnegie Center.

On Wednesday, the Bush administration announced it would train Georgian troops for operations in Georgia's Pankisi valley, thought to be the hiding place for Islamic militants who fled Afghanistan. Russia's response has been milder than its reaction to the alleged biased treatment of Russian athletes at the Winter Olympics.

"It's Georgia's sovereign right to make those or other decisions on its own territory," said Sergei Mironov, speaker of Russia's Federation Council.

Valery Manilov, another Federation Council member and a former deputy chief of the army general staff, said the move would "help neutralize terrorists on Georgian territory," something Russia has long sought.

"Since Russia today is unable, unfortunately, to liquidate hotbeds of terrorism on its own, there is no other choice," said Alexei Arbatov, deputy head of the defense committee of the lower house of the Russian parliament and a member of the liberal Yabloko Party.

Malashenko, of the Carnegie Center, said that if officials criticized the American action, their comments would not be meaningful. "They have to react," he said, "They have to show that they are patriots, that they like Russia, that this is an American expansion, an intervention on Russia's borders and so on."

As many as 12,000 rebels are believed to be using the rugged Pankisi valley as a base for launching attacks against Russian troops in neighboring Chechnya. Some Russians say that Chechens who fought on the side of the Taliban in Afghanistan have fled to the gorge. Georgian officials say that they might have been joined by dozens of Arabs and Afghans.

To win Western support for its brutal tactics, Russia has tried to label all Chechen rebels as terrorists.

The Bush administration continues to distinguish between Muslim extremists fighting alongside the Chechens and Chechen rebels fighting Russian rule.

Russia has sought the right to join the Americans in advising Georgian troops.

Irakly Menagarashvili, Georgia's foreign minister, told parliament yesterday that the government would oppose any Russian military operations.

Russian troops, in the guise of a U.N. peacekeeping force, have been stationed in the separatist territory of Abkhazia for eight years. Georgia wants the Russians out, saying that they are supporting the separatists.

American officials said they have kept Russia informed about plans for American deployment, and insist that the training of Georgian troops is in Russia's interest.

The Bush administration has muted its criticism of Russian forces in Chechnya. Administration officials said this week that Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty had shelved plans to begin Chechen-language broadcasts, at the request of the White House. An official said the broadcasts were canceled because of "new complexities in the Russian relationship."

Nine reporters based in Prague, the Czech Republic, were supposed to begin broadcasting in Chechen yesterday.

Putin's chief spokesman on Chechen affairs said in January that the Kremlin would "pay special attention" to the broadcasts, for any bias in favor of the rebels.

The group Human Rights Watch this week issued a detailed report saying that Russian troops in Chechnya "arbitrarily detain, torture and kill civilians in a climate of lawlessness."

In a study of military operations conducted last June and July, investigators for the group said they found evidence that hundreds of Chechen men were arbitrarily detained, dozens tortured and at least six executed without trial.

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