Vladimir Putin, at the end of February, was expected by pundits East and West to react sharply to the news of Washington’s plan to send military advisors to Georgia, aiding Tbilisi in its battle with Taliban-connected Chechen insurgents.  The insurgents have long used Georgia’s Pankisi gorge as a rest camp and base for continuing their war for independence, which has morphed into an Islamic jihad against Russia.  

Moscow has insisted for some time that its war in Chechnya was actually part of a struggle against “international terror” and gloated when Washington belatedly acknowledged ties among the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, and some elements among the Chechen insurgents.

Nevertheless, the possibility of U.S. intervention in the Caucasus presented Moscow with the specter of an ever-widening U.S. presence within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence: Not only does Washington appear to be weaning the Central Asian states from economic and military dependence on Moscow, the United States is poised to spread its arc of influence in the former Soviet Union from Central Asia to the Caucasus.  Russian observers were reasonably taken aback, and some speculated that the United States intended to build permanent bases in the region, potentially using them as military/diplomatic tools in the ongoing dispute over dividing up the energy spoils (oil and gas) beneath the adjacent Caspian Sea.  Both Afghanistan and Georgia are potential alternative pipeline routes for oil and gas shipments from former Soviet states.  Thus, the soft underbelly of Russia’s former empire could fall under the sway of the United States, possibly cutting Russia out of potentially lucrative oil and gas deals.

But the expected harsh response from Putin never materialized.  Not only did Putin say that U.S. aid to Georgia was “no tragedy,” the ex-KGB officer even maintained that, if the United States could intervene in Central Asia as part of its “war on terror,” then why not in Georgia, too?

Chronicles readers are familiar with the theory that Moscow hopes to cozy up to Washington and sell some of its oil and gas to the United States as a means of raising the funds necessary to rebuild the country’s collapsing infrastructure.  There are other reasons, however, why Putin’s Kremlin may think it has no choice but to tolerate what many Russians view as Washington’s aggressive expansionism: Russian media have recently been filled with stories of the poor physical and psychological condition of the underpaid, underfed, and ill-equipped Russian army, incapable of winning the war in Chechnya, much less attacking the Taliban forces in Afghanistan or their Chechen allies in Georgia.

A wave of desertions has recently plagued the Russian military, and some units of Russia’s internal troops are rumored to have mutinied when the generals considered extending their combat tours of duty in Chechnya.  Meanwhile, the suicide rate among Russia’s often inebriated troops is skyrocketing, and the Defense Ministry cannot find enough healthy conscripts to replenish its demoralized, sick, and alcoholic army.

So Putin’s Kremlin may simply have to accept American intervention.  Russia needs stability on its southern border, and she is incapable of doing the job herself.  Putin may be putting the best face on a situation he can do nothing about.