If the Balkan peninsula was the security flash-point of the
1990s, Russia and the Caucasus region are on their way to becoming
the conflict zone of the next decade.
Besides the escalation of war in Chechnya, US officials are
concerned about Russian border incursions into neighboring
countries, nationalism running high in Moscow, the rise of Muslim
independence fighters, and a greater overall influence by Iran in
the oil-rich Caspian Sea area.
The growing tensions come at a time when US-Russia relations are
at one of their lowest points since the end of the cold war. As a
result, unlike the case with Bosnia and Kosovo, the US is likely to
be left on the sideline if conditions deteriorate.
"We will have won the cold war but lost the post-cold war," says
Edward Walker, executive director of a post-Soviet studies program
at the University of California at Berkeley.
One of the most important political investments by President
Clinton and Vice President Al Gore during their tenure has been to
try to improve ties with Russia while at the same time establishing
greater influence in the Caucasus, a region that is difficult to
access but contains great natural resources.
Much of that is being undone now, analysts say. First and
foremost, according to US officials, the Rus-sian move into Chechnya
looks to be a lengthy war that Moscow cannot win - and that can only
add to the region's instability.
While Russia may be able to pummel Chechen cities with bombs and
advance on the ground with tanks, it is losing a long-term ability
to exert influence in the increasingly radical Muslim republic,
analysts say. Also, in the process, it is draining the Russian
"The Russians are fueling Islamic extremism in Chechnya, and a
... generation of boys is growing up without a secular education,"
says Lyoma Usmanov, an unofficial representative of the breakaway
Chechen government here.
Furthermore, other countries in the region, particularly Georgia
and Azerbaijan, are complaining that the Russians are committing
border incursions and destabilizing their internal politics.
On Friday, Georgian officials accused the Russians of its third
border violation, in which helicopters crossed into Georgia and
dropped bombs near the village of Shatili. Georgians have also
accused the Russians of backing assassination attempts against their
president, Eduard Shevardnadze - a claim Moscow denies.
"There's an enormous amount of unease in Georgia," says a US
administration official. …