Putin Fans Region's Flames

In 1994, when Russian forces first invaded Chechnya, and in 1999, when we went in again, one of the main official explanations of the costly endeavor was that if left in the hands of separatists and other anti-Russian elements, the conflict in Chechnya would spread like the plague to surrounding regions. Russia would begin to break up just like the Soviet Union did in 1991, as Muslim-populated areas rebelled.

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For 10 years, this nightmare scenario of an all-out war across the Caucasus seemed improbable: The Chechens resisted the Russians in a clear-cut national liberation struggle, while other Caucasus groups looked on in apprehension.

The Chechens are the biggest North Caucasus ethnic group and surely the most belligerent. The heads of most other local groups traditionally feared Chechen domination and preferred to deal with the known evil of the Kremlin, rather than fight a bloody war of liberation and find themselves under the Chechens' thumb.

Now the situation is changing dramatically. The local ruling elites still tend to gravitate toward Moscow, but the war is spreading from Chechnya across the entire region. There are almost daily reports of serious clashes in various parts of Dagestan, the republic east of Chechnya populated by a multitude of different ethnic groups. Ingushetia, located west of Chechnya and inhabited by a group closely related to the Chechens, had long been a place of peace, where Russian officers and Chechen fighters would hang out in the same cafe and relax from the nearby war zone. Now, Russians in Ingushetia are constantly clashing with local and Chechen rebels.

Christian Ossetia, west of Ingushetia, has been a bastion of Russian rule in the Caucasus for more than two centuries, but after the bloody attack in Beslan last September, dissatisfaction with Moscow is growing there as well. A steady stream of reports of armed clashes with Muslim extremists is flowing out of Kabardino-Balkaria, the mountainous republic west of Ossetia. There is also unrest in Karachayevo-Cherkessia to the west of Kabardino-Balkaria.

Chechnya is no longer an isolated phenomenon. It is also important to note that it is not Chechen fighters who are moving out to engage pro-Moscow forces on outlying battlefields. Russian officials' reports from Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria note that local non-Chechen fighters are involved.

The Russian response to the spreading Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus has been as heavy-handed as in Chechnya. To engage small groups of fighters, Russian military commanders are using flame-throwers, tanks and armored personal carriers in urban areas. Damage to civilian property is huge, and civilians themselves have been injured.

Moscow's principal response to trouble in the Caucasus since President Vladimir Putin came to power has been to wipe out any resistance without remorse, by virtually any means and without negotiation. Officials apparently hope that steady resolve coupled with unspeakable brutality will terrify Russia's enemies and bring victory.

Brute repression, kidnappings and the extrajudicial murder of suspects have only made things worse. Unemployment in the Northern Caucasus is high, in some places as high as 90 percent. Corruption is rampant, as it is all over today's Russia. The conditions for recruitment of Islamic radicals are almost as good as in Gaza.

Another troubling new feature is that Islamist non-Chechen rebels in recent clashes with Russian-led forces have chosen to fight to the death rather than surrender in totally hopeless circumstances. The main source of this fanaticism is apparently the Russian authorities' inhuman treatment of prisoners. Cases of unexplained death during detention and vicious physical torture are common.

Russia had a chance to find a plausible solution to the Chechen problem by reaching an understanding with moderate secular Chechen nationalists. Now it seems to be too late, and there is not much moderation of any sort left in the Caucasus. The rampant falsification of election results in Chechnya and other Caucasus republics has left Moscow without any serious partner for negotiation, and now elections of local leaders have been abandoned entirely.

Russia still has enough military might to stabilize the situation in the Northern Caucasus, in Abkhazia, in South Ossetia and in Georgia ad infinum. However, we no longer have the power to reap the benefits of the strife we create.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.