US-Russia Ties Headed for New Conflict ; Russian Border Troubles, Muslim Rise May Make Caucasus Region The

Article excerpt

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 economy.

"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. …

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