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The Wall Street Journal Europe
October 15, 2001
The Putin Doctrine?

It is either the biggest foreign-policy departure since the fall of the Soviet Union -- or an ingenious change of tack that only means the Kremlin is getting better at playing the same old game.

Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on Friday that Russia had no desire to meddle in the "internal" matter of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. Georgia, he said, is free to choose whether or not it wishes to participate in the Commonwealth of Independent States, a grouping of post-Soviet republics. Mr. Putin even volunteered to pull his "peacekeeping" forces out of Abkhazia if that's what Georgia wanted. "We have enough of our own problems," he declared.

The statement infuriated the Abkhaz leadership, which Russia sponsored in its 1992-1993 war with Georgia. At the end of that conflict, Georgia was forced to accept more than 2,000 Russian "peacekeepers" under the mandate of the Russia-dominated CIS. The troops have ever since stood as a reminder to Tbilisi of the perils of ignoring Moscow's wishes.

The proximate cause of the latest brinkmanship is a group of armed rebels holed up in Abkhazia's forested Kodor Gorge. The rebels have attacked Abkhazia, killing up to 40 people just as President Shvardnadze had begun an official visit to the U.S. Last Monday, they shot down a clearly marked U.N. helicopter, killing five U.N. observers.

In this remake of an old movie, Russian officials claim the rebels are Chechen terrorists. Abkhaz officials predictably echo Moscow, claiming they are Chechen and Georgian guerrillas. Georgian officials say they haven't the foggiest idea who the 200 or so militants are, but believe they are being used as a pretext by Abkhazia to call in its Russian guard dog. When military aircraft dropped bombs near the gorge last week and the finger-pointing started all over again: Abkhazian officials say the planes were Georgian; Georgia claims, more credibly, that they came from and returned to Russian territory and thus violated Georgian airspace.

By the end of last week, Russian troops were gathering along the border with Abkhazia, Georgian troops were moving toward the gorge and Abkhazia's leaders ordered the biggest mobilization of their soldiers since 1993. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov issued a statement to the Duma straight out of an old KGB playbook to the effect that Georgia should move to secure its borders and prevent Chechen fighters from using Georgia as a base. That's when President Putin blew the whistle.

There are good reasons to hope that this time things will be different. Embroiled in a war in Chechnya, and watching one unfold in neighboring Afghanistan, Russia needs a new war in the South Caucasus about as much as it needs a plunge in oil prices. For his part, President Shavardnadze understands that another war in Georgia would mar his country's chance at eventual NATO membership, which the President desperately wants. That leaves the Abkhaz alone in spoiling for a fight. If Russia stands down and Mr. Shevardnadze can keep his own forces from instigating trouble, perhaps sleeping dogs can, for once, be left to lie.

Those are big "ifs." Short-term calculations of interest are not the same as long-term policies based on principles, and anyhow the former are nothing new for Russia. President Putin's statement was laced with plenty of exit clauses. While declaring he has no interest in the "Georgian political problem," he also noted "we are undoubtedly bound to be concerned what kind of situation exists on our borders," which in Kremlin-speak means the door to intervention remains open.

These may just be face-saving flourishes. It will be clear soon enough if President Putin keeps his word and withdraws Russian forces from Georgia once, if not for all. Given this tortured history of meddling we wouldn't blame the Georgians for holding off on the celebratory vodka until then.

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