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US-Russia ties headed for new conflict

Russian border troubles, Muslim rise may make Caucasus region the

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.

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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.

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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. "We've done everything we can to help this country, and [problems with Russia] run counter to that."

But, perhaps more daunting, analysts say, is the political climate in Moscow. With coming elections, Russian politicians are banging the drum with nationalist rhetoric, calling for a resumption of the times when they were a great power, and riding an emerging wave of anti-Western sentiment.

The NATO intervention in Yugoslavia is still fresh in their minds - and it is used to justify their intervention in Chechnya.

The elite in Moscow and St. Petersburg have been disdainful of the US for years, but only now has that antagonism trickled down to the rest of the population, says Fiona Hill, director of the Eurasia Foundation, which provides assistance to the region.

And, Ms. Hill says, a mutual feeling is developing in Washington. "It's now becoming unpopular to talk about engaging Russia," she says. "I see the same kinds of anti-Russia sentiment here as you see in Moscow against the US."

As Russia searches for a new identity and its economy makes some small gains with the recent increase in oil prices, the Western international community is likely to have less influence.

That attitude has been evidenced by the Russian response to efforts by the Operation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor Chechnya. Rus-sian officials have not given the OSCE full access to the region and have said the 54-country international body, of which Russia is a member, has no jurisdiction in an internal crackdown against what Moscow labels "terrorist bandits."

Furthermore, President Boris Yeltsin has warned the international community that Russia is still a nuclear power and cannot be pushed around.

Indeed, America's top security concern with Russia is making sure its nuclear stockpile is safeguarded. But several programs to help the Russians disarm could be jeopardized by the emerging conflicts.

The new attitude by Moscow is already affecting Muslims in neighboring states, analysts say, leading to a renewed emergence of Islamic fighters thought to come under the influence of neighboring Iran. In a worst-case scenario, there could be an upswing in terrorism in a highly volatile region.

"This could produce a whole slew of Osama bin Ladens," says Ms. Hill of the Eurasia Foundation, speaking of the Saudi Arabian exile accused of terrorism against the US.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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