- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2001

A joint force of Chechen and Georgian militants is carrying out attacks on Abkhazia, a breakaway province of Georgia. The militants are attempting to open new fronts against Russia, weakening Moscow's military strength and control over both Abkhazia and Chechnya.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze may also use the situation to help usher international forces into the country to bolster his government.
Local press reports indicate a group of 200 to possibly 1,200 Chechen and pro-Georgia militants are attacking Abkhazia, a secessionist province that declared its independence from Georgia in 1993. Various media are reporting heavy fighting at the mouth of the Kodori Gorge region of Abkhazia, an attack on Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital, and a rebel advance on the Russian border, with perhaps as many as 100 people killed in the past three weeks.
With global events in a flux amid the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, the Chechen and Georgian militants are likely trying to force Moscow to divert resources to Abkhazia and to weaken its military strength. Concurrently, Russia now needs its best military personnel in Tajikistan to guard against Taliban incursions.
The Georgian government, which is accused by Russia and Abkhazia of assisting the force, may also be looking to use the conflict to neutralize Russia's presence in the country.
The region's politics are messy, to say the least. Abkhazia would not have succeeded in its 1992-1993 war for independence without Russia's support, which at one point included air strikes on Georgian military formations.

Georgia backs Chechens
Russia has kept about 1,600 "peacekeepers" in the province since 1993, officially to provide security and unofficially to keep Georgia destabilized and within Russia's sphere of influence.
Georgia accuses Russia of siding with the Abkhaz separatists and allowing the province to maintain its independence. But Chechen support was also essential for Abkhazia's independence, and after engaging in two wars against Moscow in the past seven years, the Chechens are fed up with the Abkhaz for their consistently pro-Russian politics.
This development led to a rapprochement between Georgia and the Chechens. Now the Kremlin asserts that the Georgian government allows Chechen rebels to conduct cross-border attacks against Russian forces from the Pankisi Gorge, a region in Georgia just south of Chechnya. Tbilisi counters that the Chechens of Pankisi are merely refugees from Russia's military campaigns.
Russia's claims are likely true; Georgia likely had at least cursory knowledge of the militant force's movement, and the independent Georgian newspaper Alia reports that Georgian security forces were even involved in recruiting some of the militants.
Abkhaz leaders claim Georgian army regulars or police are part of the force, while Tbilisi counters that if Georgians are involved, they are vigilantes. Such irregulars operate with impunity throughout much of the country. Georgia also says it can prove Russia has conducted air strikes on Georgian positions near the Kodori Gorge.

Kodori Gorge hot spot
This mix of volatile politics is now focused on the Kodori Gorge, a rugged area bisecting the Georgian-Abkhaz border. The militants' basing in the Kodori makes sense, as it is the home to the Svans, a small ethnic group that is fairly closely allied to Tbilisi. If the Svans are aiding the Chechens, as seems likely, then the Abkhaz have little chance of rooting either group out.
For one, the Chechens would now have ground support and ample supplies in the area. They would also be assisted by a group the Abkhaz government has not been able to completely defeat in eight years. The Svans' loyalty to Georgia and resistance to the Abkhaz makes them natural allies of the militants.
The militants' actions are fueled by more than the mere desire for revenge against Abkhazia's pro-Russia stance; they want to catch Moscow in a trap of its own making. Russia has staunchly maintained that the Abkhaz conflict is an internal Georgian matter, all the while supplying Abkhaz separatists with equipment, training and direct military support.
If the militants attacking the province have substantial success, Moscow would either have to abandon Abkhazia or send in heavy forces to protect its independence, thus abandoning the fiction that it is not aligned with the separatists.
The purported involvement of Ruslan Gelayev, one of the most powerful Chechen commanders, in the recent attacks is certainly another factor that will encourage a direct Russian response. Many of Russia's diplomatic justifications for staying in the region could evaporate in the weeks ahead.
The Chechen element of the force has its own additional goal. Russia is slowly losing the initiative in the ongoing Chechen war. Separatist fighters are becoming much bolder and are meeting with greater success, most significantly with the near-recapture of Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest city, in September.

Russia shifts crack units
Such escalations prompted Russia to transfer some of its paratroops from U.N. peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo to combat duty in Chechnya. But with the campaign against Afghanistan intensifying, Russia now needs its best military personnel in Tajikistan to guard against Taliban incursions.
These new deployments weaken the operational strength of Russia's forces in Chechnya. The Chechens know this, which is probably why they've chosen this moment to send a large force to Abkhazia. If Russia is unable to pacify Chechnya's 2,000 militants with 75,000 troops, imagine the havoc that 500 Chechens in Abkhazia could raise for Abkhazia's 5,000 military personnel.
The Chechens' positioning suggests they have no intention of making a Russian response easy. While one end of the Kodori Gorge gives them access to Sukhumi, the other grants easy passage into the politically and ethnically unstable Russian republics of Karachayevo-Cherkesia and Kabardino-Balkaria, in the Northern Caucasus.
Local press reports indicate Russia is moving to beef up its border in hopes of preventing any incursion. But Russia's track record, or lack thereof, for sealing borders against Chechens hardly inspires confidence.
Russia is faced with large-scale deployments in Bosnia, Kosovo, Moldova, Tajikistan, Abkhazia, Afghanistan, Chechnya and in the Northern Caucasus. And the last four regions would be the sites of shooting wars. Russia may have a large standing army, but it is ill-trained and under-equipped. It is not clear whether Moscow can sustain such a broad range of simultaneous combat operations; its anti-Chechen forces would certainly be weakened in any case.

Shevardnadze seeks gains
For his part, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is looking for ways to turn the escalating conflict to his advantage. He has long used every diplomatic tool at his disposal to engineer a Russian withdrawal not only from Abkhazia and South Ossetia a secessionist province also supported by Russia but also from Soviet-era military bases within Georgia at Akhalkalaki, Batumi, Vaziani and Gudauta.
His goal now is to supplant the current all-Russian force in Abkhazia with an international presence that would greatly weaken Russia's hold on and influence over Georgia. Unlike previous attempts, Tbilisi now has several factors working in its favor.
First, the West is revamping its view of the Chechen conflict in light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Most governments are now more receptive to the Russian line that Chechens are terrorists, with ties to Osama bin Laden to boot. Although this would seem an unequivocal victory for Russia, the fact that Georgia has several hundred Chechens transiting its territory certainly gets the world's attention and raises the chances that Georgia can get an international security force.
Second, the U.N. observer mission already operating in Abkhazia has utterly failed, as demonstrated by an Oct. 8 attack in which a U.N. helicopter was shot down over the Kodori, killing five U.N. staffers. If the international community decides to remain engaged, a more robust force would be the next logical step. Any armed U.N. force would both bolster Georgian sovereignty and limit Russia's ability to influence Georgia politically.
Third, while Russia is certainly an important U.S. partner, Georgia remains strategically significant for Washington. American efforts to influence Central Asia and the Caspian region depend on being able to ship the area's petroleum out through Georgia. That requires a Georgia that is whole and stable. The presence of American forces in Uzbekistan also boosts U.S. interests in Georgia as Washington may need to ship military equipment through the country for use in Central Asia.

Tbilisi: villain or victim?
Finally, while Russia is proclaiming that Georgia is a backer of terrorism, Georgia can make a convincing case that it is actually the victim. Russian efforts to back the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia left Georgia broke and essentially split into three parts. As the Abkhaz war of independence showed, Georgia simply cannot fend off an armed Chechen incursion.
It is becoming apparent that the image of Georgia unable to even patrol its own territory may be exactly what Mr. Shevardnadze seeks to cultivate. By doing so he could facilitate the presence of a U.N. or NATO force in the country. Although this would not necessarily force Moscow troops out, it would mitigate Russia's influence.
If this is indeed Mr. Shevardnadze's strategy, the risks are phenomenally high. The Chechens certainly treat people who use them such as the Abkhaz badly. So far only Mr. Shevardnadze's political savvy keeps America on Tbilisi's side, and thus Georgia free from Russia's control.
If the Abkhaz or Russians can prove Tbilisi collaborated with the Chechens to engineer the crisis, then American support would melt away, along with Mr. Shevardnadze's political career, leaving Georgia dangling helplessly in front of Moscow's nose.
But for now, the strategy seems to be paying off. Georgia's parliament called on Oct. 11 for Moscow's forces to withdraw in three months. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by saying he is willing to remove the forces, to the shock of the Georgians who expected at best a flat rejection.
Mr. Putin's statement was peppered with "ifs," but it signified a willingness to alter the status quo. That is already more of a change than Georgia has seen since 1993.
Russia's price for its change of heart is clear. If it pulls its troops out of Abkhazia, it expects to get free rein in cracking down on Chechens in the country.
Georgia is willing to allow that.
Tbilisi will let it slip that the Chechens of Pankisi are beyond its control. Such a statement probably will lead to direct Russian actions against Pankisi but would also lay the necessary groundwork for an international presence on Georgian territory. Russia would be free to strike a heavy blow against its Chechen menace, but U.N. or NATO personnel would be there to document Russian actions.
Peter Zeihan is an analyst at Stratfor in Austin, Texas, a provider of global intelligence to private companies and subscribers. Its Web site is Stratfor.com.

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