TIME's Moscow bureau chief Paul-Quinn Judge has spent the past 12 years covering the drama of the Soviet Union's collapse and Russia's travails, and has covered the wars in the Caucasus close-up. TIME.com phoned him for a briefing on how Putin plans to play his newfound importance in Washington's schema.
TIME.com: Any sign yet that Putin is going to change Russia's position and back a new UN resolution?
Paul Quinn-Judge: Not yet. But our working assumption is that Russia's opposition to new ultimatums to Iraq is not as strong as it appears. It's worth noting that at this point, Putin is still allowing his foreign minister Igor Ivanov to do the talking. We've previously seen a pattern where allowing his aides to talk tough leaves Putin space to come in and play the statesman he won't even have to go back on his words in order to back the U.S. position, because thus far he hasn't really even said much.
So Russia's rejection of calls for a new UN resolution on Iraq is simply posturing?
Exactly. They don't want to give in too early on the U.S. push for action. It would be a lot easier for the Russians if the inspectors were sent back, and were blocked by Saddam. That would allow Putin to walk away, saying he'd done his best to avoid war but that Saddam brought his fate upon himself. No matter how tough his foreign minister Igor Ivanov sounds, Putin still values his relationship with President Bush above all else.
Heavy fighting between Russian troops and Chechen fighters on Thursday offers a timely assist for President Vladimir Putin's efforts to convince the UN Security Council that Russia faces a dangerous threat from Georgian territory. What is taking place and why?
Several hundred well-armed Chechens as well-armed if not better than the Russian troops they're facing are fighting a large Russian unit around the village of Galashki in Ingushetiya. The Chechens have brought down a M-24 Hind helicopter gunship, and inflicted quite a few casualties on the Russians. The numbers are rising, and although Russia early on claimed to have lost 10 men and killed 30 Chechen fighters, our experience in covering this conflict suggests that the claims of each side tend to double enemy casualties and halve their own. So, it's a major battle.
The Russians are certainly correct in claiming that the Chechen fighters infiltrated from Georgia. What they're not discussing, of course, is how according to Russia's own account some 200 to 300 heavily armed, uniformed men managed to cross the border in an area where Russia knew they were operating and then, over two weeks, march largely unmolested through some 30 miles of the most heavily militarized and tightly-controlled parts of Russia.
Still, for Moscow, the Galashki clashes are welcome evidence of Georgian perfidy. The Georgian government traditionally claims that Chechen rebels hide out in the lawless Pankisi Valley where the government has no control, but it's safe to assume the government knew what was happening. There's a lot of sympathy for the Chechen rebels in Georgia, a former Soviet Republic whose leaders have been trying to move out of the Russian orbit and closer to the West. And of course that, and not simply rebel infiltration, is the source of Moscow's hostility to Georgia's government.
President Putin harbors a deep, visceral dislike of Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze. Russian leaders blame him for his key role while serving as Gorbachev's foreign minister in the late 1980s in the breakup of the Soviet Union, its retreat from Eastern Europe, and Georgia's move into the NATO orbit. Russians feel that control over Georgia is their birthright and also a vital component of their own security.
So now that Putin has this "smoking gun" proving infiltration from Georgia, what will Russia do next?
On Thursday the Russians were hinting very strongly that the latest fighting is the final straw. On Friday the tone seems to have calmed a little. Georgia is expecting retaliation, and not just in the Pankisi Gorge. That might be bombed a couple of times, but there's not much there except a few sheep. Instead, the Georgians expect a Russian military operation to break Georgia's grip on the Kodori Valley. Several pieces of Georgia have been nibbled away by Russian-backed separatist insurgencies since Georgia broke from the Soviet Union. The most independently-minded region is Abkhazia, to which the Georgian-held Kodori valley is the strategic gateway. And Georgian officials fear that if Russian pressure forces their troops out of the valley in the coming days and weeks, that could bring down Shevardnadze's government in Tbilisi.
The Georgians fear that the object of any Russian military retaliation will be not simply to punish them for harboring Chechen rebels, but also to weaken Shevardnadze, already unpopular at home because he presides over a corrupt regime. Moscow's ideal outcome is Shevardnadze's ouster and replacement by a more pro-Russian leader.
There's been speculation for weeks now that Putin wants to do an Iraq-for-Georgia deal with the U.S. supporting Bush's plans for regime change in Baghdad in exchange for a green light to send his own troops into Georgia. How likely is such a deal?
Until now, Washington has restrained Putin from moving against Georgia. Russia may now be telling the Americans that Russia has to do something, like it or not, and may be calculating that the U.S. won't try to stop them. They'll be trying to convince the U.S. that Georgia is not a friend, and that it harbors terrorists. But if the U.S. firmly restates its position that Georgia is a red line that Russia cannot cross, Putin will probably back down. He values his relationship with Washington too highly to take on Bush.