Russia resigned to U.S. presence in Caucasus


by Vladimir Radyuhin


 The Hindu, 3  March 2002

Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG), , 4  March 2002


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Russia appears to have finally resigned itself to the growing U. S. military presence in the former Soviet states, while seeing its own influence in the region decline rapidly.

A day after the Russian Foreign Minister angrily warned Washington that its planned deployment of commandos in Georgia could destabilise the situation in the region, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, suddenly declared that he saw "no tragedy'' in the plan and was all in favour of the U. S. helping Georgia smoke out Chechen and suspected Al-Qaeda militants from the Pankisi Gorge on the border with Russia's rebel Chechnya. ``If we are talking about a fight against terrorism in the Pankisi Gorge, then we support this fight no matter who is participating in it,'' Mr. Putin told journalists after his meeting with Georgia's President, Eduard Shevardnadze, on the sidelines of an informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Kazakhstan on Saturday.

The awkward climb-down from threats to endorsement of American involvement in Georgia underscores Russia's dwindling ability to influence developments in its own backyard. The former Soviet republics of Central Asia have ignored Moscow's objections when they went beyond the Moscow-approved "humanitarian'' assistance to the U. S.-led military operation in Afghanistan and agreed to the establishment of U. S. military bases on their territories. Now the turn of the Caucasus has come. ``If Central Asian states can do it (play host to U. S. troops), why Georgia can't'' Mr. Putin remarked philosophically as he tried to put a brave face on Georgia's rejection of Russian help in fighting terrorists and invitation of Americans. The Russian leader said he had been assured by Mr. Shevardnadze that American presence in Georgia would be limited to "15 to 20 servicemen.''

Even as Mr. Putin was speaking to journalists in Kazakhtan, an official at the Georgian Defence Ministry in Tbilisi disclosed that a "large group'' of U.S. military specialists were to arrive in Georgia later this month in the "first phase'' of the planned U. S. troop deployment in the republic, while American media spoke of hundreds of U. S. troops heading for the Caucasus.

The U. S. military also plan to set foot in Armenia, one of Russia's closest allies in the former Soviet Union. Last week a delegation of American military experts discussed in Yerevan plans to upgrade the Armenian armed forces' communications system, to set up a military training complex, and to train and equip an Armenian peace-keeping force. Once the U. S. has established itself in the Caucasus, other NATO countries are likely to pour in, as it is now happening in Central Asia. Turkey is reported to have begun reconstruction of an airfield in Marneuli, Georgia, and has reached agreement with Azerbaijan to set up two air bases on its territory. Even though Washington has listed Georgia along with the Philippines as part of its global anti-terrorist operation, there is little doubt in Moscow that the U. S. is out to turn the Caucasus into a bridgehead against Russia.

The respected Izvestia daily quoted Russian intelligence sources on Saturday as saying that President Shevardnadze had agreed to the construction of an American electronic spy station in Georgia.

Copyright  The Hindu     2002. Reprinted for Fair use only.

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