Russia: Is Putin Looking To Expand The Chechnya W

Will Vladimir Putin make a pre-emptive strike of his own? In Moscow, rumors are swirling of an impending Russian military move against Georgia. A source close to the Russian General Staff has told NEWSWEEK that military leaders have completed planning for an assault on the Pankisi Gorge, a remote canyon that has been used as a hideout by rebels from neighboring Chechnya. Other sources say that Russian officers have already been issued tactical maps for use in the operation. The Russians and Georgians have been at loggerheads over the canyon hideout for months. Moscow accuses Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze of giving shelter to terrorists; the Georgians complain about Russian incursions into their airspace. Last month Putin sent a note to the U.N. Security Council--couched in terms that conspicuously resembled President George W. Bush's arguments for an attack on Iraq--warning that Russia might have to make use of its right to self-defense if the Georgians didn't act against the Chechen rebels. Not long after that, though, guerrillas entered Russian territory from the gorge, killing 11 Russian soldiers.

Analysts in Moscow point out that the Russian military preparations can't be going unnoticed in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, and might just be part of a Russian war of nerves against the Georgians. (And indeed Putin has yet to give the final go-ahead to his generals.) Late last week Georgia suddenly moved to extradite five suspected Chechen militants to Russia--a sign, perhaps, of growing nervousness on the Georgian side.

A Russian attack on Georgia could put the White House in a quandary. It has been trying to help the Georgians cope with the Pankisi problem by training and equipping Georgia's generally ineffectual Army. It's also been examining, in response to a Russian request, how the Georgians can build a demilitarized zone on their side of the border that might prevent further infiltration by rebels. The White House has repeatedly said that it doesn't want to see any moves by the Russians that would impinge on Georgia's sovereignty, but at the same time, Bush has made it clear that he won't allow Russia's conduct in Chechnya to jeopardize the antiterrorist partnership between Moscow and Washington.

Still, Georgia may not be the only issue facing the Russian-American alliance. At the end of last week Putin issued a decree that could lead to the closure of the Moscow office of U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty. It's not surprising that the ex-KGB officer would hate a radio station created during the cold war to broadcast American-style news deep behind the Iron Curtain. But until recently, Putin had only hinted at his dislike. Now the station's fate is in limbo. At the very least, station staffers say, they will lose access to Russian politicians leery of crossing the Kremlin. Putin has made war on the press since taking office in January 2000. The Radio Free Europe station had continued to broadcast critical reporting--especially about the war in Chechnya.