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A PARODY OF PARTNERSHIP



Published: Fri, September 20, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



A PARODY OF PARTNERSHIP

Washington Post: Vladimir Putin, the soul-baring friend of President Bush, is offering another demonstration of why the administration's flighty rhetoric about the "transformation" of U.S.-Russian relations has been premature. Mr. Putin's government is doing its best to hamstring Mr. Bush's campaign against Iraq; the Russian ambassador at the United Nations rushed to embrace Saddam Hussein's transparently tactical acceptance of weapons inspectors and declared that no further action by the Security Council was needed.

Meanwhile, Mr. Putin himself is peddling a grotesque parody of Mr. Bush's principled stand on both Iraq and Afghanistan: Last week he informed the Security Council, in terms that deliberately echoed Mr. Bush, that the war on terrorism may require a unilateral Russian attack on the small neighboring nation of Georgia, a former republic of the Soviet Union that infuriates Moscow merely by existing as an independent, democratic and pro-Western state.

This stunningly brazen attempt to cloak an old-fashioned threat of military aggression in Mr. Bush's new doctrine of preemption has been accompanied by an even more cynical suggestion of quid pro quo: Allow Russia to crush Georgian sovereignty, Mr. Putin hints, and he just might acquiesce in the enforcement of the U.N.-ordered disarmament of Iraq. Bush administration officials are saying they won't play Mr. Putin's game; the White House needs to make that point unambiguously this week to Mr. Putin's visiting defense and foreign ministers.

Threat to Georgia

The nominal basis for Mr. Putin's threat to Georgia, a country the size of South Carolina with a mostly Christian population of 5 million, is that it is tolerating the presence of Muslim rebel fighters from the neighboring Russian province of Chechnya. Mr. Putin insists that these are terrorists, indistinguishable from Al-Qaida, and that Georgia is allowing them to operate training camps and pass freely across the border. In fact the insurgents are almost all ethnic Chechens fighting for self-rule who take refuge during summer in the Pankisi Gorge, a wild, 11-mile-long strip that has long been lawless.

The Bush administration contends that some Al-Qaida operatives may be present in the Pankisi, but evidence is scant. In any case, the Georgian government clearly has no interest in backing Al-Qaida terrorists, or even the Chechens; it has readily accepted an ongoing U.S. training program for its army, and it recently dispatched 1,000 troops to clear out the Pankisi. President Eduard Shevardnadze has asked to meet with Mr. Putin and invited international monitoring of the border area; this week his administration agreed to extradite 13 suspects Russia says are Chechen guerrillas.

These initiatives are not enough for Mr. Putin: His goals are to distract attention from a recent series of military disasters in Chechnya ... and to use the leverage of Russia's U.N. Security Council vote on Iraq to achieve suzerainty over Georgia, which Moscow has been seeking since long before the war on terrorism.




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