U.S. intervention in the former Soviet republic of Georgia is not so much to fight terrorists but to establish a “firm foothold” in the Caucasus region in order to protect its access to the vast oil reserves of the Caucasus and Central Asia, according to official Russian sources.
The action “may lead to unpredictable consequences” and “may involve costs both material and political,” Moscow said, characterizing reports of the U.S. military presence in Georgia as “shocking news.”
The remarks were carried by the Voice of Russia World Service, the official broadcasting service of the Russian government, and cited from an earlier RIA Novosti report.
U.S. military advisers will assist the Georgian military in the struggle against terrorist elements located primarily in the remote Pankisi Gorge region, where several thousand Islamic fighters have taken refuge from the conflict in neighboring Chechnya.
The political situation in Georgia is extremely volatile and prompted Moscow’s warning about the “consequences” and “costs” of intervention in the war-torn and deeply ethnically divided nation.
Not only is Georgia experiencing a military crisis in the Pankisi Gorge, but it also faces violent separatist conflicts in Abkhazia in the northwest and South Ossetia in the north of the country. Both regions have succeeded in declaring independence, although the international community does not recognize them as separate nations.
Russia has been engaged in peacekeeping efforts – as well as possibly supporting the Abkhazians, as some charge – since shortly after Georgia declared its independence in 1991.
“Without Russia’s help, Georgia cannot solve its domestic issues peacefully,” Moscow declared.
Moscow described Georgia as a country where “the authorities do not control the major territory” and further asserted that “terrorist groups can move from place to place with the help of government agencies.”
The presence of Chechen militants on Georgian soil has long been a source of contention between Moscow and Tbilisi.
In October 2000, the Moscow News reported that thousands of Chechens – mostly males of fighting age and many having battle wounds – had taken up residence in the Pankisi Gorge area. Hundreds of the Chechens had no identification documents, and thousands ignored legal requirements to register with local Georgian officials.
Since the Pankisi Gorge was already inhabited by ethnic Chechens, rebels from Chechnya easily fit into the population of the area.
The militant Chechens, however, did more than mix into the prevailing ethnic group, according to Moscow News; they also took charge of all key administrative posts in the Pankisi region, including the distribution of humanitarian aid.
The objectives of the Chechen fighters is to establish an Islamic republic, not only in Chechnya proper but across the entire Caucasus region, which spans the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.
Evidence has continually mounted that the Chechen militants received support from – and are associated with – groups involved in international terrorism, including al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden’s terror network.
According to a Feb. 6, 2001, report from the Voice of Russia, one of the leaders of the Chechens, who identified himself as emir (chieftain/prince) Khattab, issued a proclamation to the West declaring that “your time has come … the flame of jihad will wipe away your vile world.”
Despite the U.S. military presence, Georgia retains close ties with Russia. Georgia is a member of the Moscow-led Commonwealth of Independent States, which is the successor entity to the defunct Soviet Union. Much of Georgia’s trade comes from Russia, as well as its electricity, and in 2001 the Georgian Foreign Ministry described close relations with Russia as a “major geopolitical imperative.”