Russia's Caucasus Quagmire ; in Its Current War, Russia Is Following a Familiar Pattern in the Fractious Region

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The hills above this military staging post in southeastern Ingushetia are a riot of fall colors. The high, snow-capped Caucasus Mountains seem to float on the mist beyond, like a living postcard. But in the immediate foreground, tanks and armored personnel carriers churn up a muddy field. Groups of young conscripts in filthy uniforms, assault rifles slung over their shoulders, stand idly about.

A few days ago a band of Chechen rebel fighters crossed the border into Ingushetia and ambushed a Russian patrol in broad daylight, killing some 50 soldiers from this base, according to the Moscow media. A Russian major, standing on the camp's perimeter, says the attack occurred but refuses to give his name or any details of the action.

"We're fighting here so that these boys won't have to fight one day in their own hometowns," he says, gesturing toward a group of conscripts. The rugged but confident-looking major's uniform is freshly starched, and he wears a peaked cap with a silver double- headed eagle badge. "If we don't take strong measures now, all this instability will spread."

Then he offers an analogy that speaks volumes about the mind-set of the Russian military, as they commit more and more resources in pursuit of victory against the Chechen irregulars who own those forested hills beyond the base. After World War II, the USSR fought a little-known counterinsurgency struggle to destroy CIA-backed anti- Soviet guerrillas in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine. "Those Ukrainians were the same kind of bandits, fighting us in similar terrain," he says. "It took 10 years, but we ground them down and eventually wiped them out. We'll do the same here."

The irony of that comparison seems completely lost on him: Ukraine is today an independent country, and those long-buried guerrillas are being transformed into national folk heroes. The USSR may have won the war, but it failed in the long run to create a society that any of its diverse peoples wanted to belong to.

Post-Soviet Russia appears headed down the same road. Its Achilles' heel is here, in the North Caucasus. Six impoverished and restive ethnic republics nestle up against the high wall of the mountains, which separate Europe from Asia in this part of the world: Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino- Balkaria, and Karachayevo-Cherkess. Of these, all but one are traditionally Muslim. All are rent with internal discord, and it is growing worse under the impact of the deepening cataclysm in Chechnya.

"This is a colonial war, and it will end ... with the republics of the North Caucasus breaking free from Russia," says Franz Sheregi, an analyst with the Institute of Social and National Issues in Moscow. "They cannot be integrated into Russia, except under a colonial system. And that means endless war and dissension."

It's hard to escape that conclusion here on Ingushetia's rugged frontier with Chechnya. Russian artillery batteries dug into hillsides hammer the nearby Chechen towns of Bamut and Sernovodsk around the clock. …