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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Confronts Age-Old Chechen Conflict

Every Russian can quote Lermontov's famous lines about the evil Chechen standing on a river bank, a long knife at his side.

It is an image that has stuck, a vestige of the 60 years of war during the 19th century when Russian imperial expansion confronted Chechen resistance in the North Caucasus, according to Alexander Iskandryan, director of the Caucasus Research Center in Moscow.

President Dzhokhar Dudayev has used the image for his own purposes, telling reporters, "It is useless to try to intimidate us. We can be good friends, but very bad enemies."

From Russia's point of view, Chechnya has considerable economic importance. It is home to oil reserves and an oil refining business, and it controls crucial road and rail links to the rich reserves around the Caspian Sea and further, in Central Asia.

Ever since Dudayev declared independence three years ago, road and rail shipments between Russia and Dagestan have been subjected to repeated raids as they passed through Chechnya. The situation got so bad earlier this year that Moscow announced it was considering constructing a rail link and pipelines that would skirt the region altogether.

But the region also has a strategic importance that goes well beyond its economic significance. According to Charles Blandy, a geopolitical analyst with the Conflict Studies Research Center at Sandhurst College in England, Russia is still bound by its centuries-old "siege mentality," and the desire to keep a "sanitized buffer zone" on its southern border.

"Historically, Russia's geostrategic policies have been to create a buffer zone between Russia and Turkey and Iran. To do that, the north Caucasus has to be firmly under Russian control, and that was the reason for the long war in the 19th century -- and why there is terrific hate and enmity among the Moslem mountain people against Russia," he said.

The Chechen resistance during that war proved formidable. "They are good soldiers, they fight well, and they have a social tradition that it is very important to appear well in front of their own people. It means they prefer death to shame," Iskandryan said.

Chechens formed the main resistance to Russian imperial expansion between 1813 and 1864, and even then they were not wholly pacified.

They rose again to fight the Bolshevik army after the 1917 revolution, only to be deported en masse by Stalin in 1944. Half a million people -- virtually the entire Chechen and neighboring Ingush populations -- were put on trains to Kazakhstan. Some 200,000 of them died from cold and disease. The remainder were only allowed to return in the 1950s, and many still live in the diaspora.

Resistance through a secret Islamic Sufi brotherhood, which the Russians never succeeded in penetrating or stamping out, continued throughout Soviet times, according to Blandy.

The fierce independent streak of the Chechens will unite them if Russian forces invade the tiny breakaway territory, analysts said. "If the Russians intervene militarily it will inflame the whole Caucasus," Blandy said.

He described Chechnya, subject to an economic blockade since August, as close to collapse. "There is absolute chaos and anarchy; the people of Chechnya are fed up with the total breakdown of law and order," he said, adding that the elders have spoken out against the bloodshed.

Blandy expressed surprise at Yeltsin's threat to intervene militarily. "All they had to do," he said, "was wait for this apple to fall off the tree."