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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgia Calls Putin's Bluff

Last week, President Vladimir Putin threatened to intervene militarily if the Georgian government does not destroy Chechen rebels in the Pankisi Gorge. The State Duma followed up with a broadside of its own by voting overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution not only supporting military action but also threatening economic sanctions.

For several days a new war in the Caucasus seemed inevitable. It also became obvious that many in the Russian elite are in fact hoping an attack on alleged terrorist bases and training camps would help overthrow Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who is accused in Moscow of being pro-Western, pro-NATO and anti-Russian.

However, this week first deputy head of the General Staff, General Yury Baluyevsky, calmed the waters when he told journalists that Moscow is not planning any large-scale military action in Georgia and that Putin's statement does not in fact constitute an ultimatum. He added that Russia in the future might pursue Chechen rebels on Georgian soil but in agreement with the Georgians.

This apparent climbdown does not mean that the conflict is fully over, or that Moscow will not continue trying to intimidate Georgia. The Kremlin would have gone into Georgia to destroy the rebels (and Shevardnadze) if it could. But it can't because Moscow does not have the sufficient military capability.

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Russia has nuclear weapons, jet bombers and over 2 million servicemen in different armies, but it has almost no decent ground troops. The best of the bunch -- over 80,000 of them -- are tied down in Chechnya. Actually going over the Georgian border from Chechnya in "hot pursuit" is virtually impossible even in summertime: There are no roads, so armor and trucks cannot cross the high mountain passes. With the onset of winter, snow will cut Georgia off completely until next May. (There are only two roads connecting Georgia and the Russian North Caucasus all year round, but even they are sometimes closed for months because of heavy snow.)

Georgia has a dilapidated armed force of some 17,000 men, but without its consent Russian armor will never get into Pankisi and there will be no reliable supply line. The Russian army may land a hundred or so men by helicopter in the Pankisi Gorge, but the Chechens could repel them successfully with Georgian help. (Russian soldiers are accustomed to raping, killing and marauding during "antiterrorist operations" in Chechnya. In Pankisi they might do the same, raising the possibility of the whole population -- Georgian and Chechen alike -- turning against them.)

All Russia can really do is bomb Georgian territory from a high altitude. But Russia has been bombing Georgia intermittently since 1992, and more bombs will only make things worse. There are probably no more than 20 to 50 genuine Chechen terrorists or "jihadist" Muslim radicals hiding in Georgia -- not an easy target to hit with bombs. There are, apparently, no permanent "terrorist bases" or "training camps." And it's always hard to distinguish "a peaceful Chechen" from a combatant, as all possess rifles and most support the resistance.

Putin seems to have issued a strongly worded Soviet-style threat against a neighboring nation with no Soviet-style force to back it up.

This week it was announced that special security zones will be created on the border with Georgia, although it's hard to see how this will help in the fight against the rebels in Chechnya. Putin told journalists "we do not want much from Georgia" and at the same time announced that over a million ethnic Georgians working in Russia may suffer if Shevardnadze does not submit.

Putin is eagerly seeking a way out of a failed bluff. If Georgia hands over the 13 Chechen rebels who crossed its border last month and surrendered, Putin can claim victory. The United States wants to keep Shevardnadze in power and at the same time retain Putin as an ally, while it is preparing to go into Iraq. Washington has been trying to calm Putin down and press Shevardnadze to hand over the Chechen fighters without delay. The handover of combatants by a neutral country to the enemy may constitute a breach of the Geneva Convention but hardly anyone today is bothered by such trifles.

If all works out as planned, the hand-over may happen this week. But what if a corrupt Georgian official takes a bribe and the Chechens "escape" from prison? Putin might bomb Georgia after all and also veto a UN resolution on Iraq.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.