Putin threatens to launch strike against Georgia

Echoing Bush on Iraq, Russia seeks removal of Chechen rebels

September 13, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - President Vladimir V. Putin threatened yesterday to launch a military strike in the former Soviet state of Georgia, accusing its leaders of "conniving with terrorism" by allowing Chechen rebels to operate from a rugged border region.

Putin's warning, in a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, came just a few hours before President Bush's appearance before the General Assembly and used some of the same arguments that Bush has been using to justify military action against Iraq.

"If the Georgian leadership doesn't take concrete actions to destroy the terrorists, and bandit incursions continue from its territory, Russia will take adequate measures to counteract the terrorist threat, in strict accordance with international law," Putin wrote. He had made similar threats on Russian television Wednesday, the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Putin said his aim was not to "undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Georgia or overthrow the regime of President Eduard A. Shevardnadze. But he accused Georgia of abetting terrorism by failing to drive Chechen fighters out of the Pankisi Gorge, which borders Russia's breakaway Chechen republic. Russia will do what is necessary to protect itself, he said.

A Russian incursion into Georgia would put the United States in an odd position. America has soldiers stationed there, training Georgian troops. At the same time, the State Department has agreed with Russian assertions that some al-Qaida fighters are hiding in the gorge.

Countering threats

Shevardnadze rejected what he called Putin's "threats" and warned that an incursion would be disastrous for Russia. "I do not think Russia would engage in an adventure that would lead to its moral and psychological defeat all over the world," he said, quoted yesterday in Tbilisi's Georgian Times.

Facing growing pressure from Russia, Shevardnadze had ordered 1,000 police officers and troops into the Pankisi Gorge last month. They arrested 13 suspected criminals and one alleged Arab militant but failed to satisfy Russia's demands for wider operations.

Yesterday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters that he would present Putin with plans to attack rebels in the gorge in the next few days. But the usually well-informed newspaper Kommersant Daily reported that Putin had approved plans for specific operations Sunday.

Escalating tensions

In indirect acknowledgment of the parallels between the Bush and Putin communications to the United Nations yesterday, Kommersant reported that Putin expects no opposition from the Bush administration over Georgia, even though Shevardnadze has been considered a loyal American ally.

"Russia will not interfere with the United States' plans in Iraq, and the United States will close its eyes to what Russia will do in Georgia," the newspaper reported.

The warnings follow a long summer of escalating tensions between Russia and Georgia, allies in the United States' struggle against the al-Qaida network.

Yesterday, Russian legislators called for economic and diplomatic sanctions against Georgia's government if it fails to act.

And Georgia's parliament dispatched a letter yesterday to the United Nations, NATO and other international organizations saying Putin "has placed in front of Georgia the threat of aggression."

Some Russian foreign policy experts say widening the war beyond Chechnya would be foolish.

"Putin has made a mistake," said Alexander Bovin, a political commentator and Russia's former ambassador to Israel. "He does it in the same way that Bush does it in Iraq. I hope that, despite what Putin said, we would never go as far as sending troops to Georgia."

If Putin does, Bovin warned yesterday in an interview, Russia would face a second Chechnya. "It will be too much," Bovin said.

`Tired of Chechnya'

Military specialist Alexander I. Zhilin, a retired colonel and director of the Center of Applied Political Problems in Moscow, said the public applauds Putin's hard line.

"Russian society overwhelmingly supports this policy because that society is tired of Chechnya," he said in an interview. "In Russian society, even among the Russian elite, Shevardnadze is considered a traitor. Not just that, but as someone who has lost all morals."

Putin, who also sent the letter to members of the U.N. Security Council and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was vacationing in the Black Sea port of Sochi yesterday and did not attend Bush's speech on Iraq at the U.N. General Assembly.

For months, Putin has demanded that Georgia bring order to the lawless Pankisi Gorge, home to smugglers and warlords, as well as Chechens who have fled the fighting in their homeland.

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