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Friday, Sep. 13, 2002

Georgia, Iraq Two Sides of Same Coin

President Putins keen eye for analogies in international power politics has paid off once again.

By outlining plans for a possible military strike on Georgia and citing UN resolutions as the basis, Putin has underscored the similarity between Moscows conflict with Tbilisi -- which it accuses of harboring terrorists who pose a direct threat to Russias security -- and Washingtons explosive conflict with Baghdad. (One year ago, Putin did a similar shadow dance when he offered Chechen rebels a 72-hour deadline to sever ties with terrorists, mirroring an ultimatum Washington had just presented to the Taliban.)

Putins threat of military action has raised the stakes of the game. His reference to the UN Security Councils anti-terrorism resolution gives Russian national interests a thick coat of international legitimacy.

Moreover, the harshness of the warning sends a double message to Washington. On one hand, Putin has put pressure on the Bush administration to show how far it will go in its support for Tbilisi. On the other, by acknowledging the United Nations role as arbiter, he has played on the worlds exasperation with Washingtons go-it-alone attitude on Iraq.

Additionally, open talk of a potential use of force is an attempt, albeit clumsy, to justify last months poorly handled Russian air raid into the Pankisi Gorge, which Moscow has unconvincingly denied.

But Putins bark is worse than his bite.

Russia is highly unlikely to pursue a ground operation that would put new demands on its shoddy armed forces. More important, a military conflagration in Georgia could quickly fan out across the Caucasus, further destabilizing the entire region.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who has railed against Tbilisi for providing safe haven to terrorists, said Thursday that using force against Georgia "may prove unnecessary."

Some observers say Putins statement on Georgia was aimed at Washington. Clearly, there has been no simple trade-off, whereby the Kremlin has agreed unconditionally to support Bushs drive to oust Saddam Hussein in exchange for carte blanche in Georgia. But both Moscow and Washington have overlapping security and economic interests in Georgia and Iraq. And the former superpowers have obviously linked their plans for these two nations in more subtle, still nascent agreements.

If Russias tough stance on Georgia helps nudge the Bush administration toward accepting world opinion and seeking UN approval for an attack on Iraq, both Moscow and Washington will win out. What would otherwise have seemed like the unbridled pursuit of national interests will be ennobled by the air of international legitimacy.

From The Moscow Times

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