America’s war on terror is far from over. And its field of operation is continually expanding. The latest country to join the ranks is the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
A Georgian guard patrols the border
Everything began with the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Igor Ivanov. Towards the end of February Ivanov made a few statements that caught the attention of the US defense department. It was not improbable, he said, that Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda troops could be hiding in the Georgian Pakissi Gorge.
With such a provocative statement, Ivanov should not have been surprised at the American’s sudden announcement to send troops to Georgia. But what the Russian foreign minister really wanted was to put pressure on the Georgian government to clamp down on what it sees as a growing concern in the Chechnya-Georgian border region.
Wild mountain men
Since the beginning of the Russian-Chechnya conflict in 1992, more than 7,000 refugees have fled across the border into neighboring Georgia, where they have enjoyed relative anonymity.
Among these refugees, the Russian intelligence agencies suspect are several Chechnya rebels, drug dealers and weapons smugglers. So far, the Georgian border guards have been unable to prevent these refugees from sneaking their way over the mountains into the country.
The government in Tbilisi has slowly lost control over the rugged mountain region – a development that has become unacceptable for Russia. Moscow has accused Georgia of not being more aggressive in maintaining control in the mountainous border region and has even threatened to intervene in its own interests. So far, however, the Georgian government has been very cool to Russia.
Is Russia a sore loser?
Regional observers perceive a hidden agenda in Russia’s Georgia politics. The previous powerhouse Russia cannot accept that the small country in the Caucuses has tried to disentangle itself from the mother’s sphere of influence.
Two years ago during the presidential campaign, the Chief of State Eduard Shevardnadze announced that he wanted to lead his country into the European Union and NATO. Such an alignment would imply a distancing from Russia.
Russia, however, has tried to hold on to Georgia and has resisted its dwindling influence on the smaller country. The former superpower has, for example, refused to close down all its military bases in Georgia.
Georgia: caught in the middle
The predominantly Christian Georgia with its 5.5 million people forms a unique bridge between the Islamic world and Europe. The country enjoys an important strategic location: several main lines of communication and transportation traverse its land. Oil and gas reservoirs in the Caspian See, for instance, are to be pumped with the help of a pipeline across Georgia into Turkey.
200 US military advisors and 11,000 Russian soldiers
Because of Georgia’s geographical importance, America has been interested in the region for some time. Already in 1996, Georgia and the US signed military agreements in which the US promised to guarantee military support for the region.
Now the Pentagon has announced that up to 200 military advisors will be sent to the region. The request for assistance came after foreign fighters from Jordan and Saudi Arabia were arrested in the Pankissi Gorge. According to official statements from the Pentagon, the American advisors will work with their Georgian colleagues to establish a training plan. Once the plan is in place, the US will decide how many more advisors need to be sent to Georgia.
It’s still not clear how Russia with its 11,000 troops will react to the presence of US troops so close to its borders. For now the Russian President Putin says he supports the deployment of US troops in Georgia.