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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin's Candidate for Pre-emption

While working to slow down the Bush administration's campaign against Saddam Hussein, Russia has for weeks waged a campaign of accusation and intimidation against neighboring Georgia, where some Chechen fighters have taken refuge. It's not the first such outburst by President Vladimir Putin against his Georgian counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze. But Russia's pitch-perfect parody of U.S. antiterrorism policy has commanded Washington's attention and could even derail Russian-American cooperation.

On the eve of President George W. Bush's Sept. 12 speech to the United Nations on Iraq, Putin wrote Secretary-General Kofi Annan charging that Georgia's passivity toward Chechen fighters on its territory violated Security Council resolutions. Russia might therefore have to act unilaterally. The chief of Russia's General Staff insisted that Shevardnadze was "in no way" different from Mullah Omar of the Taliban.

Russia's defense minister announced that no United Nations vote was needed to attack Georgia. One newspaper published military plans to occupy all of Georgia -- and thereby "dictate the terms" of its future existence as a state. The headline: "Pre-emption Moscow-Style."

Shevardnadze has shown he can use Moscow's words against it. Echoing the United Nations debate on Iraq, he has invited Putin to send unarmed inspectors to see for themselves that Georgian forces have cleared the area where Russians say Chechen fighters roam at will.

When the current anti-Georgian frenzy began, many in both Moscow and Washington saw it as a Russian military attempt to deflect attention from the war in Chechnya. Russian polls show popular confidence in the management of the war has dropped to about 30 percent. Yet even the most transparent scapegoating of Georgia seems to sell. No surprise, then, that one of the generals reprimanded when Chechen rebels shot down a military helicopter in August told reporters last week that the Chechens got the missile they had used from -- yes -- the Georgians.

If one believes Moscow journalists and politicians, Russian generals fear more than professional disgrace in Chechnya. By perpetuating the war, they also protect the black-market livelihood they have there, selling oil, drugs, even weapons. Yet blame-shifting is only one Russian aim in this affair. Moscow's nationalistic agitation has brought other motives to the surface, particularly the desire to take Georgia down a peg.

For years Shevardnadze has said that letting Russian combat forces into Georgia would engulf his country in the same violence that Chechnya has experienced. To which some Russians answer, "So what?" For them, if chaos could topple Shevardnadze or break Georgia's budding relationship with NATO, or wreck plans for pipelines that circumvent Russia -- well, what's wrong with a little chaos?

Russian officials disavow such ideas, but Moscow's threats have guaranteed a strong show of U.S. support for Georgian independence. Bush fired off a letter to Shevardnadze, praising his "invaluable contribution" to the war on terrorism. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, while saying he wouldn't lecture the Russians, has publicly warned them off any thought of using "brute force" against Georgia.

U.S. administration officials acknowledge that a Russian attack on Georgia would be a fiasco for their friendly relations with Putin. "Regime change" in Georgia would reverberate across the entire former Soviet Union. In Russia, it would make the idea of restoring some sort of post-Soviet realm not just a nostalgic Communist obsession but a respectable strategic alternative to joining the West. Elsewhere, governments that the United States has tried to help -- or, as in Central Asia, whose help it has sought -- would be on notice that the United States cannot, or will not, help them stand up to Russia.

Despite its emotional heat and dangerous implications, Putin's indictment of Georgia has already had its effect. These days in Washington it's not good enough for any state to say that it tolerates only a few terrorists and only some of the time. Or that there aren't enough of them to affect the outcome of the war next door. Or that the terrorists wouldn't be a problem at all if the neighboring state hadn't mismanaged the war in the first place.

Georgia can and does make these arguments, with real persuasiveness. Yet, while holding the Russians at bay, the Bush administration has apparently concluded that the only way to avert disaster is to get the Georgians to address the underlying problem rather than to win the debate.

Last spring, during an earlier round of Russian accusations, the United States responded by announcing a major military training program for Georgia. This time the response has been: Get your act together -- a serious state doesn't make itself vulnerable by letting armed fighters use its territory. Shevardnadze's sweep against the fighters is one result. The fact that fighting has now escalated in Chechnya itself, involving Chechen units with nowhere else to go, may be another.

Russians often accuse the United States of blindness to Shevardnadze's failings, but they're wrong. The afterglow of admiration for his achievements as Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev doesn't drive U.S. policy anymore. In fact, most U.S. diplomats regard his regime in Georgia as corrupt and ineffective and have given up hope that any of Georgia's problems will be dealt with seriously under his leadership. They know Shevardnadze is a survivor. They just want to see him do enough to survive.

If this confrontation ends more or less peacefully -- a big if -- it may be because all the parties accept what they least like in each other's policies. The United States may not mind Russian pressure if it focuses Shevardnadze on what he has to do. The Russians may not mind American influence if it yields a change in Georgian policy. And the Georgians may not mind being told they have to make decisions they find it hard to make themselves.

In such an outcome, Russians who saw an opportunity to turn back the growth of U.S. influence will be disappointed. But some of them may have known this was where they would end up. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was asked three weeks ago whether Russia didn't in fact need a larger U.S. presence in Georgia. "Maybe," he shrugged.

Stephen Sestanovich is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at the University of Columbia. He contributed this comment to The New York Times.