Rugged and remote, a bewildering patchwork of ethnic identities and the violent historic frontier between Christianity and Islam, the Caucasus has been a seedbed of war and insurrection for centuries.
Conquerors have occupied its green river valleys and gentle coasts only to be driven away by mountain warriors sweeping in from the heights above.
It took Russia 150 years to subdue the Caucasian isthmus, which joins Europe to Asia between the Black Sea and the landlocked Caspian. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago, Moscow's grip faltered. The southern states of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia broke free and have since drifted toward the West.
The current three-month-old war, now focused on the Chechen capital, Grozny, and mountains to the south, is post-Soviet Russia's second attempt to reimpose its control over the Caucasus' vital northern gateway.
Chechnya is the most volatile of Russia's six North Caucasus republics, the only one to have declared independence when the USSR broke up. The 19th century Russian General Mikhail Yermolev, who spent decades trying to crush Chechen resistance, called them "congenital rebels."
In 20 months of brutal warfare after Russia's 1994 invasion, Chechen irregulars consistently outmaneuvered, outfought, and eventually drove out Moscow's armies.
But having won de facto independence, the Chechens proved incapable of governing themselves. Chechnya's elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, failed to create a viable government, to address the republic's economic ruin, or to rein in restless and lawless local warlords. One of those warlords, Shamil Basayev, triggered Moscow's rage by launching two attacks on the neighboring republic of Dagestan last summer.
For Russia, the stakes in Chechnya are huge. Average Russians appear angry and fed up after a decade of national decline. The war has been hugely popular, in part due to fears of terrorism after a series of apartment bombings over the summer killed 300 people in Russia. Moscow blames the attacks on Chechen insurgents. The Army felt humiliated and betrayed by its previous defeat in Chechnya, analysts say, and is eager this time for complete victory. Moscow is engaged in a vast game of chess with the West over the Caucasus and particularly the newly discovered Caspian oil fields. If Russia loses its grip on Chechnya, and vital mountain passes to the south, any hope of winning that game will evaporate.
The West's hope that Russia is firmly on the road to democracy and open society has been badly shaken by the assault on Chechnya. Russian forces have bombarded Chechen towns, creating streams of refugees, and are now blasting the capital, Grozny, into rubble.
There are disturbing reports that Russian troops massacred dozens of civilians two weeks ago in the town of Alkhan Yurt. Other reports say the Russians are using "aerosol bombs," which erupt in a fiery ball of gas, to target fighters in the southern mountains.
Russian prosecutors, meanwhile, say they are investigating mass graves in Chechnya alleged to contain 1,000 people. Prosecutors believe the victims were ethnic Russians killed between 1991 and 1999. They have called on President Maskhadov to testify in the case.
Though Moscow may hope for military success in the short run, it seems unlikely the Chechens will abandon their struggle anytime soon. Some basic questions on the conflict include:
What does the Caucasus refer to?
The Caucasus comprises three post-Soviet states and six autonomous Russian republics occupying the mountainous isthmus joining Russia and Turkey between the Black and Caspian Seas. The historic divide between Europe and Asia, the traits of both mix - often wildly - in the South Caucasus countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. The mainly Muslim North Caucasus includes the Russian provinces of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karacheyevo-Cherkessia, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan.
What ethnic groups live there?
The Caucasus is possibly the world's most complex ethnic mosaic, making the Balkans appear simple by comparison. More than 100 distinct groups, speaking dozens of languages and practicing several different religions, occupy traditional economic niches in the region's mountain slopes, broad valleys, and subtropical seacoasts. Dagestan alone has 32 ethnic groups and 14 official languages.
Who are the Chechens?
The Chechens are an indigenous group of mountain herdsmen, farmers, and fighters who have lived in the North Caucasus for thousands of years. They speak a distinct Caucasic tongue, which is non-Slavic, non-Turkic, and non-Persian. Russian novelist Mikhail Lermontov wrote of the Chechens in 1832: "Their god is freedom, their law is war." The last census in 1989 put their number at just over 1 million.
Is Chechnya an independent country?
Chechnya broke away from Russia in 1991. But the declaration went unrecognized by Moscow and the world community. In 1994 Russian forces invaded, but were forced to withdraw after two years of bloody warfare and an estimated 80,000 deaths. The cease-fire agreement ending the conflict left Chechnya's national status in limbo until 2001.
Why is Chechnya important to Russia?
Moscow regards Chechnya as part of the Russian Federation; the 1993 Constitution written by President Boris Yeltsin does not acknowledge the right of any territory to secede. The North Caucasus republics command mountain passes into the South Caucasus, where Russia is jockeying with the West for influence with those post-Soviet states and control over output of potentially vast Caspian oil fields.
What are the prospects for peace?
Russia appears to be staking all on military victory and has consistently ruled out talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov or any international mediation. A pro-Moscow Chechen leader serving prison time for embezzlement, Bislan Gantamirov, was recently pardoned by President Yeltsin and sent to Chechnya, probably to head an eventual puppet government. Most analysts believe Russia can capture Chechnya's towns and cities, but doubt it can win an extended guerrilla war against Chechnya's highly-motivated and fast-moving irregular forces.
What has life been like for ordinary Chechens?
Chechnya was one of the poorest regions in the former Soviet Union, but isolation and lawlessness made things incomparably worse after the republic declared independence in 1991. The 1994-96 war devastated towns, ruined infrastructure, and killed thousands. The present war has cut off power, heat, and water to most towns and villages and led more than 200,000 people to flee to ill-supplied, makeshift refugee camps in neighboring Ingushetia.
What is the international community doing?
Western leaders have condemned Russia's battle tactics in harsh terms, but have taken few practical steps to rein in the Kremlin. On Dec. 28 the World Bank approved a $100-million loan to Moscow, signaling that business-as-usual is likely to prevail.
A history of rebellion
1722: Russian Czar Peter the Great annexes Dagestan, only to lose it in subsequent warfare with mountain tribes.
Early 19th century: Russia fights for decades against an Islamic alliance led by Imam Shamil, a legendary Avar warrior from Dagestan. Chechens are the backbone of anti-Russian resistance, and the last to surrender in 1859.
1944: Accusing Chechens of collaborating with invading Germans, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin deports the entire nation, along with their Ingush cousins, to Kazakhstan. Tens of thousands die.
1957: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev permits surviving exiles to return to their ancestral homes.
Aug. 1991: Chechnya's Communist leadership supports an abortive coup in Moscow. They are overthrown, with Russian President Boris Yeltsin's blessing, by a local firebrand, former Soviet Air Force Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev.
October 1991: After winning a dubious election, Dudayev declares independence.
December 1994: Russian troops invade Chechnya. Moscow succeeds in occupying all the republic's urban areas, but is unable to defeat guerrillas in the mountainous south.
August 1996: The rebels re-take Grozny. Under the Khasavyurt Peace Accords, Russia withdraws from Chechnya and agrees to discuss its independence after five years.
January 1997: Rebel military commander Aslan Maskhadov, a moderate nationalist, wins presidential elections.
August-September 1999: Chechen militants led by warlord Shamil Basayev launch two invasions of neighboring Dagestan. Apartment bombings in Moscow and two other Russian cities kill some 300 people. The Kremlin blames Chechen extremists.
Oct. 2, 1999: Russian forces invade Chechnya for the second time.
Dec. 25, 1999: A full-scale assault on Grozny begins.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society