Balancing American Interests: Russia, Georgia and the War on Terrorism

Balancing American Interests: Russia, Georgia and the War on Terrorism

Washington cannot expect Moscow's substantial cooperation in the war on terrorism to endure if there is no reciprocal effort to address Russian priorities.

One of the greatest challenges to American foreign policy in prosecuting the war on terrorism is finding the appropriate balance between accepting other states' definitions of terrorism-and their unsavory responses to it-uncritically, on one hand, and rejecting their definitions and, inevitably, their assistance in pursuing key American interests, on the other. This challenge was illustrated starkly last week by Russian President Vladimir Putin's suggestion that Moscow might strike militarily--and unilaterally--at Chechen rebels that have taken refuge in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. Mr. Putin argued that Tbilisi has taken insufficient action to close its borders to the Chechens and, as a result, Georgia is harboring terrorists. Mr. Putin argues that Russia has the right, to act, not only under Article 51 of the UN Charter, but also under Security Council Resolution 1373, adopted after 9/11.


A recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal dismisses the Russian President's statement (delivered with admittedly poor timing on September 11) as an opportunist attempt to win a free hand to launch attacks into Georgia in return for not using Russia's veto in the United Nations Security Council to block resolutions authorizing the United States to use force against Iraq. (1) Reality is somewhat more complex.


While the Journal is correct that Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is no Saddam Hussein, he is hardly the "enlightened" leader the Journal suggests. As Charles King argues in the print edition of The National Interest, Mr. Shevardnadze is neither a committed democratic leader nor an effective economic reformer. (2)  On the contrary, he has contributed to the survival of Soviet-style governance arrangements and allowed corruption to flourish. Senior Bush Administration officials have confirmed that some Chechen rebels have taken refuge in Georgia. Moreover, as The Wall Street Journal itself has reported, the Chechens have had links to Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. (3)


Thus Mr. Shevardnadze's enthusiastic affinity for the United States seems driven less by shared values than by strategic calculations and, frankly, a desire to poke his finger in Moscow's eye whenever possible. Similarly, the Georgian President's approach to Russia seems to be both an attempt to distract attention from his government's domestic failings (which are plentiful) and a continuing bad habit previously nurtured by Washington. Toward the end of the Clinton Administration, frustrated by the failure of their earlier policies toward Russia, American officials more-or-less sought to use Georgia as a key player in a neo-containment policy toward a weakened Russia. Today, however, gratuitous efforts to snub the Kremlin-such as Mr. Shevardnadze's decision to allow the Russian government to learn of the deployment of U.S. special forces to train and equip his military from Washington rather than Tbilisi-are needlessly provocative and alienate Russian officials and the Russian public. As someone who "helped bring the Cold War to a peaceful end", as the Journal recalls in its editorial, the Georgian President, of all people, should understand that a pro-Western foreign policy need not be inherently anti-Russian. Many other governments in the region have managed to strike a more successful and stable balance.


This is in no way a defense of Russian conduct vis-à-vis Georgia or, for that matter, Chechnya, which is the source of the problem. Moscow has been unnecessarily heavy-handed in both cases and nothing short of brutal in the latter. Any presumptive Russian attacks into Georgia would likely follow this same pattern; the under-trained, under-paid, under-equipped, and demoralized Russian army is unlikely to mount high-tech precision strikes against small and highly mobile groups of Chechen fighters.


Still, leaving aside Mr. Putin's (and Boris Yeltsin's) flawed approaches to these problems, it is clear that both issues are among Russia's highest priorities. Chechen independence is viewed as a direct threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, not to mention its social stability, given the lawlessness rampant in that region. The ability of Chechen rebels to attack Russian forces and then flee into Georgia contributes notably to that threat. From the Russian perspective, the danger posed by Chechnya is comparable to that faced by the United States since September 11.


This does not mean that the United States should wink at Russian attacks into Georgia in order to have its way in Iraq. However, ignoring Russia's concerns is counterproductive; Washington cannot expect Moscow's substantial cooperation in the war on terrorism to endure if there is no reciprocal effort to address Russian priorities. The last decade of the U.S.-Russian relationship has already demonstrated-more than once-that "partnership" cannot be a one-way street.


This has two implications for American policy. With specific regard to Georgia, the United States should make it clear that it cannot endorse unilateral Russian military strikes into Georgia. At the same time, Washington must demonstrate, beyond rhetoric, that it is genuinely interested in addressing Russian concerns. Indeed, taking into account Moscow's strong opposition to unilateral American action against Iraq and strong preference to resolve the matter in the Security Council (4), the Kremlin can hardly take the position that a multilateral approach involving the United Nations (or an appropriate regional organization like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) would not be appropriate for Georgia. Alternatively, Washington could work directly with Tbilisi and Moscow. The Bush Administration already seems to have had some success in encouraging Mr. Shevardnadze to work with the Kremlin, and some senior Russian officials are prepared to work within a tripartite format (Russia, Georgia, and the United States) to secure the border regions, prevent the infiltration of fighters and funds into Russian territory, and remove safe havens from Georgian territory.


More broadly, American officials should approach the top priorities of other important allies and partners in the war on terrorism with similar seriousness. A global campaign against terror cannot be successful as a strictly American enterprise, yet it can be little more than that if key governments are not genuinely on board. This is not a theoretical distinction: the difference between substantial cooperation and pro forma gestures by other governments could be a longer war on terrorism that again costs thousands of American lives. Winning the war quickly-and saving those lives-is our country's most vital national interest.

Paul J. Saunders is the Director of The Nixon Center and a senior editor at In the National Interest.

(1)  "Putin's Iraq Price", The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2002.  The quid pro quo--of Russian support for an American attack in return for Washington giving Moscow a free hand in Georgia, has also been suggested by Yuri Shchekochikin, in his contribution to this issue of In the National Interest.

(2)  "Potemkin Democracy", The National Interest, Summer 2001.

(3)  "Saga of Dr. Zawahri Sheds Light On the Roots of Al-Qaeda Terror: How a Secret, Failed Trip to Chechnya Turned Key Plotter's Focus to America and bin Laden", The Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2002.

(4)  A point emphasized by Dimitry Rogozin in his contribution to this issue of In the National Interest.