Russia's bombing of suspected Chechen rebel strongholds in northern Georgia, and the sharp rebuke the action has elicited from Washington, are a welcome reminder that, even in President George Bush's war against terror, a blank cheque cannot be presumed.
The early enlisting of Russia as an ally and supporter after the 11 September attacks came at an unspoken price – that the United States would turn a blind eye to Moscow's incompetent and brutal pursuit of its drawn-out war in Chechnya, presented by the Kremlin as part of a global campaign to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism. Indeed, the US has sent advisers to neighbouring Georgia, to help its friend President Eduard Shevardnadze impose control on the wild Pankisi gorge in the north of his country. Russians and Americans alike say the locality is used as a cross-border base by Chechen guerrillas.
But Mr Bush's advisers now seem to have decided that, with Friday's bombing raids in which Georgian civilians were killed, Moscow has gone too far. The Russian military's denial of the raids merely underlines how mendacity rivals ineptitude as the distinguishing characteristic of its operations. Russia, moreover, has long sought to undermine Mr Shevardnadze – out of lingering resentment at his role, when he was Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister, in dismantling the Soviet empire of which Georgia was a part, and at his invitation of the US into a corner of the world that the Kremlin regards as its preserve.
If the incident is a harbinger of cooler relations between US and Russia, then so be it. The rapprochement always ignored the reality of a fallen superpower's wounded pride, while President Vladimir Putin's economic agreement with Iraq, and Russia's long-standing support for Iran's nuclear programme, only underscore how the interests of the two countries diverge.
The White House reaction to the bombing raids reflects a concern to polish its human rights credentials. But Mr Bush should go further still and demand the Kremlin end its dirty war. The Chechen campaign is billed as part of the war against terror. In fact, the pointless savagery with which it is conducted only aids the terrorist cause.
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