Source :

Chechnya: Russia's War in the Caucasus

By Kenny Coyle

Pamphlet published 1999

1- Background to Chechen war

The war in Chechnya has a complex background, tightly tied to the historical and ethnic character of the Caucasus region. This is interwoven with attempts by various regional and imperialist powers to shape the coming decades of this new millennium.

Simplistically, the battle has been presented either as a legitimate Russian counter-terrorist operation against Islamic fanatics, or as the attempt of a crumbling empire to reassert control over a key colony. The reality is more complicated. In short, the conflict in the Caucasus has a three-tiered character.

First, since the first Chechen war of the mid-90s, extreme Islamicist mujahidin have emerged in leading positions in the Chechen republic and are tied to forces outside the Caucasus. Second, the Russian establishment is responding to a broader Western imperialist attempt to isolate the country, divide it and weaken it. Third, the pro-capitalist elements in the Kremlin cannot afford to lose out on the energy riches in the Caspian Sea, which make the Caucasus a key target of imperialist intervention.

The Islamicist groups now currently spearheading Chechen resistance to Moscow do not see themselves as fighting national oppression but a jihad or holy war against 'infidels', both Christian and Jew. They do not regard a separate Chechen state as an end but as a means to establishing an Islamicist state uniting Chechnya and the neighbouring province of Dagestan, despite clear opposition from the majority of the Dagestani population. In the previous conflict, the Chechens were able to draw on support, or at least sympathy, from other Caucasian nationalities. This is not the case now.

While the de facto Chechen republic had initially adopted a secular constitution, in the past couple of years the formal president of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, turned toward a draconian implementation of Islamic Sharia law, similar to that applied in Saudi Arabia.

Subsequently, the Chechen government decreed that all women working for the government or studying in higher education must wear traditional Moslem dress or risk losing their positions. People detained for consumption of alcohol in public could be flogged, Islamic courts' sentences also included the amputation of thieves' limbs and the public execution of convicts for breaches of Sharia law. All these were hitherto unknown customs recently imported by foreign Islamic missionaries and deeply shocking to many local Sufi Islamic leaders and believers.

As with the Balkans, some on the left have viewed the Chechen struggle in isolation from its regional context and failed to recognise the practical impossibility of every ethnic group establishing its own state in areas of mixed populations. In the current period, a Chechen Islamicist state, for that is what it would be, threatens not only the democratic rights of many in Chechnya but, since it has designs on neighbouring Dagestan at least, would deny the national rights of others.

Likewise, a Russian military occupation of a Chechnya reduced to rubble and without popular support is impossible beyond the short term.

One answer could be an entirely renewed Russian Federation, allowing widespread autonomy for the Caucasian provinces but also ensuring that the rights of all nationalities in the region, not just the Chechens, were respected. A progressive and democratic Russian government could help act as guarantor of the multi-ethnic and secular character of such a federation.

However, the brutal and bloody character of Yeltsin's and Putin's assaults and the misery it inflicts on innocent civilians is having precisely the opposite effect. Although the Putin government has Chechen allies, including military units as well as political figures, it seems uninterested in seeking to isolate the hardline Islamicist mujahidin from other elements in the Chechen opposition. This would represent the most sensible political and military solution, even from Putin's point of view.

The Russian leadership, defeated in Chechnya before, repeatedly humiliated as Nato has moved eastward, and alternately defiant and compliant in the face of the Nato aggression against Yugoslavia, has complex motives.

Most obviously, Yeltsin wished to head off any possibility of an opposition victory in the Duma elections and, more importantly for him, the presidential elections. Assuring a friendly successor president was essential given Russia's presidential system to guarantee Yeltsin and his family immunity from prosecution on charges of corruption and fraud.

The timing and popularity of the war were therefore crucial in bolstering the entirely unknown Vladimir Putin as effective head of the right-wing alliance that performed strongly in the 1999 elections, creating the first pro-Kremlin Duma since Yeltsin's bloody bombardment of the Russian parliament in 1993.

So the deaths of thousands of Chechens, Russians and other nationalities have been sacrificed, at least partly, to save the skin of the Yeltsin clan. In stark contrast to his gung-ho moralising over Kosovo, Prime Minister Tony Blair eulogised that the world was "more stable and more secure as a result of Boris Yeltsin's leadership. At every critical moment, his decisions have reinforced the process of reform and made Russia a closer partner of the West, both politically and economically."

The Russian capitalist class has, so far, failed to steady itself. It has, until now, had no major mass political party. The revolving doors to the prime minister's office were at least as much to do with an ongoing crisis of policy as it was the whims of the erratic Yeltsin. Putin's aim is to change this.

It is only now dawning on the new Russian pro-capitalist elite that Western policy has only achieved half its major objectives. Its first aim was to eradicate the socialist states in Eastern Europe and has largely succeeded in this, at least for a time.

However, the major imperialist states have intervened in Eastern Europe not only to help create capitalism, but a particular kind of capitalism – weak, divided and dependent. That is one reason why all three multi-national socialist states, Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia have been dismembered.

While Russia is certainly no longer a socialist society, neither is it an imperialist power, at least not in the sense Lenin understood it. The Russian economy is characterised not so much by the export of capital from a saturated domestic economy but the illicit salting away of billions of dollars abroad by the 'New Russians'. These mafia capitalists and speculators have little interest in investing in production and are unsure of the stability of the system.

Gennady Zhugyanov's Communist Party of the Russian Federation has so far failed to reverse its accelerated shift toward parliamentarianism and toleration of Great Russian chauvinism and even anti-Semitism. Certainly the party has reassembled a powerful opposition electoral constituency that has seen its votes increase at each election since the party emerged out of illegality in the early 1990s.

However, the CPRF's over-reliance on the Duma when the Russian CP constituted the main force will be sorely tested now that, at least temporarily, there is a sizeable right-wing majority. The party's botched attempt to impeach Yeltsin at the height of the Yugoslav war allowed the President to dismiss Yevgeny Primakov, the most independent-minded premier post-Soviet Russia has so far had.

The long drawn-out conflict, contradicting Russian army boasts of a quick victory, may yet rebound on Putin.

2 - The Politics of Oil

The break-up of the Soviet Union released enormous resources that had been denied to Western transnational corporations for decades.

In the early years of the 20th century, oil from the Russian Caucasus accounted for nearly half of all oil produced in the world. The oil district of Grozny was, next to Baku, the most important Russian oil area before the revolution and by 1915 accounted for about 18% of Russian oil production. The oil fields at Baku provided almost all the remainder.

More than half the investment in Russian oil came from abroad. Before World War I, the total investment in the Russian oil industry was $214 million, $130 million of that represented foreign capital. Great Britain was particularly active in Russia, providing more than 60% of the foreign capital.

In the former Soviet Union, Grozny oil was at one time quite important, accounting for one-third of national production in 1932. In the post-Soviet era the importance of Grozny oil for the Russian economy has diminished greatly but its importance as a regional producer increased. Over the years, Grozny became a key oil pipeline crossroads, an oil refining centre and also a juncture for natural gas from fields in Russia and Central Asia.

The vast oil fields of Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and in the North Caucasus of Russia have always been a target for invasion. It was to secure unimpeded access to these riches, as much as for the symbolic associations with the city's name, that Hitler threw division after division at Stalingrad in World War II.

Access to these newly available resources is an enormous boon for Western imperialism. The US is determined not to have to rely on the unstable Middle East for supplies. However, as recent events in Venezuela, now one of the largest national suppliers of oil to the USA, have shown, nowhere is truly safe.

Prising open the oil fields grouped beneath and around the Caspian Sea have been a key strategic target of the US in the past decade. BP Amoco, Texaco, Mobil, Chevron and other US and foreign companies have already spent over a billion dollars on developing the Caspian oil resources. They are drawing on a whole spectrum of Cold War foreign policy figures from the US and Britain to cash in on the region.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser under President Carter and a key figure in securing initial US support for the Afghan mujahidin, is a consultant to Amoco.

James Baker, a former US Secretary of State, runs a law practice in Houston doing business for the oil companies, where he is able to use his friendship with his former Soviet counterpart Edward Shevardnadze, now president of Georgia.

Former US National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, advises Pennzoil and the multinational Azerbaijan consortium. Dick Cheney, President Bush's Secretary of Defence, is now chief executive of Halliburton of Houston, the world's largest oilfield services company.

Azerbaijan is also a favourite destination for the British oil companies such as Monument and Ramco. Timothy Eggar, who as British Energy Minister led a delegation to Baku in 1994, is now chief executive of Monument Oil, while former Foreign Minister Malcolm Rifkind sits on the board of Ramco.

In October 1997, Le Monde Diplomatique wrote: "The negotiation of oil contracts enabled Washington to show a direct interest in the region. The US government sees it as an extra source of energy, should Persian Gulf oil be threatened. It also wants to detach the former Soviet republics from Russia both economically and politically, so as to make the formation of a Moscow-led union impossible. In an article published in the spring, former [US] Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger wrote that if Moscow succeeded in dominating the Caspian, it would achieve a greater victory than the expansion of NATO would be for the West."

US policy therefore has both a tactical economic aspect and a longer-term strategy to further weaken Russia.

The most crucial question for oil supply though is the route chosen for delivery. Unlike the Persian Gulf, none of the oil producing states of Caucasus offer the possibility of shipment to the West by tanker, since the Caspian Sea is essentially a huge inland lake. The alternative is the construction of a super pipeline from Central Asia to either the Mediterranean or the Persian Gulf.

For several years, two rival pipeline projects have been mooted. US corporations Amoco, Exxon, Pennzoil and Unocal lead the Azerbaijan International Oil Consortium (AIOC), comprising Chechnya's neighbour, Azerbaijan, and 11 Western companies. Its aim is to construct a pipeline to carry Azeri oil from the Caspian seabed. US petroleum concerns are currently responsible for more than 50% of oil investment in Azerbaijan. The government of Azerbaijan is possibly the most pro-US in the region, offering its territory for US military bases and seeking integration into Nato through 'big brother', Turkey.

Meanwhile, the Russians put together a Caspian Pipeline Consortium to run a pipeline from the Tengiz fields of Kazakhstan across Russia to the port of Novorossisk on the Black Sea and to link this with a pipeline extending northwest from Baku.

However, to do this the pipeline from Baku would have to run through either Chechnya, which has been virtually inoperable because of the renewed conflict, or neighbouring Dagestan, itself the target of several Chechen mujahidin incursions in August 1999.

The US government insisted from the outset that the pipeline, expected to carry one million barrels per day, run from the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The shortest route to Turkey leads through Armenia. But Azerbaijan and Armenia broke off all relations after a brutal war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. This route does, however, pass through Chechnya's other near neighbour, Georgia, despite the fact that this detour is double the cost of a shorter path between Azerbaijan and Iran. Washington's aim is to ensure that oil supplies are free from Russian and Iranian influence.

The Istanbul Protocol, signed late last year during the OSCE conference in the Turkish city, is a significant victory for the plans of the US and Turkey. The New York Times of November 19 1999 bluntly described it as "one of President Clinton's cherished foreign policy projects, a pipeline that would assure Western control over the potentially vast oil and natural gas reserves".

While US Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson, enthused: "This is a major foreign policy victory. It is a strategic agreement that advances America's national interest."

Inevitably, many Russians believe that destabilisation in the Caucasus represents a Western plot to monopolise energy resources in the region. While this has a certain simplistic aspect to it, ignoring as it does the other complex factors, it nonetheless expresses a certain truth. The expansion of Western imperialist influence eastward demands the further break-up of Russia and the wresting of her rich energy resources from her grasp, piece by piece.

3 - Ethnic crisis in the Caucasus

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union into its 15 constituent republics, the Russian Federation has faced further ethnic and nationalist strife fuelled by the disastrous return of capitalism. Roughly 20% of the population of the Russian Federation are non-Russian. In the Caucasus, an elaborate mosaic of nationalities and minorities make up significant parts of the population.

Anti-Russian feeling dates back to Tsarist times and despite genuine efforts by the early Bolsheviks to seek an equitable solution to the ethnic complexity in the region; the Caucasus was a hotbed of nationalist and tribal revolts throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1940 a nationalist revolt broke out which climaxed in 1942, with the Nazi army just 300 miles away. Chechen nationalist leaders Hassan Israilov and Mairbek Sheripov issued an appeal declaring that the Nazi invaders would be welcomed as guests, providing, of course, they were prepared to support Chechnya's independence.

Stalin's response to this rising behind the front line was severe and undiscriminating, he decreed that hundreds of thousands of Chechens should be deported miles further east to break the back of the revolt and secure the key Caucasian front against the Nazis.

The decree against the Chechens was not revoked until de-Stalinisation in 1957. Returning Chechens often found that other nationalities had settled in villages and districts that had been predominantly Chechen before. Nationalism in Chechnya, therefore, included not only a continuation of anti-Russian feeling but also resentment against their neighbours of other Caucasian nationalities.

It is therefore essential to understand the Chechen separatists' attitude toward other nationalities and neighbouring Caucasian provinces, particularly the adjacent territory of Dagestan. While sections of the British ultra-left now seek to portray the Chechen mujahidin as a essentially a national liberation movement, their programme is based primarily on establishing a confessional, theocratic state with a strong imprint of Wahabbi theology, the most puritanical wing of Islam.

Although predominantly Moslem, the populations of the Northern Caucasus are followers of an entirely different movement, Sufi Islam, which is regarded as heretical and practically pagan by Wahabbi disciples. The leaders of the Chechen mujahidin have openly declared their intention of establishing an Islamic state based on 'sharia' law.

Such moves are not universally welcomed. There have been a number of assassination attempts by the mujahidin on moderate Islamic religious leaders, including Chechnya's highest religious leader Mufti Ahmad Kadyrov and a successful attempt on his Dagestani equivalent. Sufi religious leaders, even those entirely opposed to Moscow, have been vehement in their denunciation of the mujahidin's actions.

Unsurprisingly, those of non-Islamic faiths have felt particularly threatened. The last population census in 1989 showed that the then Soviet autonomous republic (ASSR) of Checheno-Ingushetia numbered 1,270,000 people, of which Russians made up 336,000 people, or one-quarter of the total. As a result of the deteriorating social and ethnic situation around 65% of Russians had fled by 1994. They have since been joined by nearly all the local Armenians and Jews. In neighbouring Dagestan, which has been a particular target of the Chechen-based mujahidin, one of Russia's oldest Jewish communities – the so-called Mountain Jews of the Caucasus – has suffered particularly from heightened ethnic tension. In Soviet times, Dagestan was the home of more than 40,000 Jews who came from Persia in the Middle Ages and who co-existed with their Moslem neighbours for centuries. In the past two years alone, 12,000 have left Dagestan.

By September 1999, there were estimated to be no more than 20,000 Russians left in Chechnya. In the capital, Grozny, the Russians used to be the majority community in a city of 400,000 people. Indeed, an Austrian journalist who visited the besieged city in January 2000 estimated that about half of those remaining in the city were Russian.

However, it was the Chechen mujahidin activities in neighbouring Dagestan, which still regards itself as part of the Russian Federation, that triggered the latest round of fighting in attempts to detonate an Islamicist insurrection there and unify the two provinces.

Chechen Mujahidin commander Shamil Basayev told an Islamic magazine in November 1999: "Dagestan is our nation and it belongs to both the Chechens and the Dagestanis. Russia separated us by force and we will unite by force."

However, it was Dagestani resistance to Basayev that proved his undoing. Despite the presence of a sizeable community of Chechens in Dagestan, there are also 33 other nationalities, making it the most ethnically diverse republic in Russia. This has created a series of checks and balances that were missing in Chechnya.

Dagestan's political system is designed to preserve stability among the ethnic groups. The State Council is composed of one representative from each of 14 major ethnic groups. The Constitutional Assembly, which elects the State Council and makes amendments to the Constitution, also reflects the relative size of ethnic groups. Moreover, the Constitutional Assembly elects State Council candidates on a cross-ethnic vote, which encourages them to obtain support from outside their ethnic group. This has tended to marginalise ethnic extremists of all kinds.

Despite ethnic divisions, the greatest destabiliser in Dagestan is poverty. The collapse of the Soviet Union plunged Dagestan into a deep economic crisis. The unemployment rate reached 80%. As a result, the average salary in Dagestan is one third of that in Russia as a whole and over 70% of Dagestanis live below poverty levels. Unemployment, poverty and corruption have fuelled Islamicist movements in Dagestan as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

It was to feed off this discontent that Basayev attempted to trigger the failed rising in Dagestan. On 7th August 1999, around 1200 armed Mujahidin entered the Botlikh region of Dagestan from Chechnya. After three weeks of fighting, a combined force of Russian Federation troops and local self-defence units forced the mujahidin to withdraw on 24th August. A Dagestani political figure, Gadzhi Magomed Gadzhiyev, reported that "The people of Dagestan are aggressive towards the [mujahidin] fighters. Volunteer detachments are being set up in all districts of the republic to squeeze out and destroy the bandits."

The mujahidin from Chechnya invaded for the second time on 5th September 1999. This time, the attack occurred in the Novolakskoye region, north of the previous battleground. Here again local resistance and Russian troops repelled the mujahidin.

The local mixed Dagestani population was crucial in repelling the mujahidin assaults and this fact goes some way to dispelling simplistic illusions in the character of Basayev's forces. Certainly, the Chechen mujahidin have succeeded in raising ethnic tension in Dagestan: "Grozny has created a bridgehead in the [majority Chechen populated] Khasavyurt region for seizing all of Dagestan. The local Chechens have been assigned the role of the fifth column," warned Magomed Tolboev, the Dagestani Security Council chairman.

Interestingly, some commentators have noted that the leader of the Chechen republic Aslan Maskhadov had been due to meet with Boris Yeltsin shortly after the time of the first mujahidin invasion of Dagestan began. The timing may indicate that Basayev launched the operation in order to prevent any compromises with Russia. In the circumstances, this strengthened hardline opinion in Moscow that Maskhadov was simply a figurehead or, at worst, was now supporting Basayev's project. It also infuriated the Dagestan government that had tried to intercede between Maskhadov's government and Moscow to achieve a peaceful solution. The speaker of the Dagestani parliament, Mukhu Aliev, said that the anti-mujahidin volunteer units would not be disarmed until the threat of violence from Chechnya subsided.

4 - A jihad in Chechnya

Islam is one of the world's great religions and probably the most misunderstood in the West. Ignorance of Islam has led to an essentially racist 'Islamophobia', on the one hand, which fears Moslem populations and states, equating the faith with terrorism.

However, a second error is to ignore the rise of reactionary political and social movements simply because they express themselves in Islamic vocabulary and theology.

This is like confusing Liberation Theology with the conservative and even pro-fascist wing of the Catholic hierarchy. For socialists, determining the nature of these politico-religious movements must be based on their social outlook rather than their theology.

The recent recognition of the breakaway Chechen republic by the Taliban government of Afghanistan highlights the increasingly open and formal links between the Chechen mujahidin and outside powers. In November 1998, a high-level Chechen delegation, led by Abdul Wahid Ibrahim, visited Afghanistan to lay the ground for open recognition.

As was noted previously, the populations of the northern Caucasus are primarily, although not exclusively, Moslem. But it has been the Sufi wing of Islam that is rooted there. Sufi Islam adapted to local pre-Islamic beliefs and often incorporated local rites and customs.

However, this places it in opposition to the Wahhabi school of Islam, an 18th century movement aimed at purifying Islam and returning to basic Koranic concepts. It is this wing of Islam that is best described as 'fundamentalist', although only in the same sense that right-wing Protestants in the US, who hold to the literal truth of the Bible, can be regarded as 'Christian fundamentalists'. In both cases, these are conservative social movements with definite political agendas.

Anatol Lieven, author of a book on Chechnya noted: "The 'Wahhabis' in the North Caucasus used to number a few, with minimal influence; but religious radicalisation produced by the war, the arrival of former Arab mujahidin who had served in Afghanistan and, above all, Arab money, have since made a strong impact."

During the Cold War, Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were encouraged by Middle Eastern regimes to combat secular communist parties and pan-Arab nationalism. However, three other factors have seen the emergence of new Islamicist movements since the 1960s.

First, in response to widespread radicalisation caused by the rising Palestinian struggle, local conservative regimes saw it as essential to push at least some of these radicals away from a broader anti-imperialist perspective and to focus on a 'holy war' against the Jews and their Christian backers.

Second, the oil wealth that transformed the hitherto backward and conservative Gulf states also created a revulsion against consumerism and the local 'playboy' ruling classes. The Wahhabi movement, which had its origins in the Gulf, won many new and often rich converts. It was a Saudi-born millionaire, the infamous Osama Bin Laden, who set up the International Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders.

Third, and quite crucially, as part of imperialism's efforts to roll back communism, vast quantities of arms and foreign volunteers were made available to fight the revolutionary government of Afghanistan and its Soviet ally. The US used Pakistan as the conduit for these efforts. By 1987, some 65,000 tonnes of weapons were being transferred each year to Afghanistan via Pakistan.

A key source of funding for these covert operations, as in other CIA-orchestrated ventures, has been the heroin trade. Gulbaddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami mujahidin faction, itself backed by the CIA and more directly by the Pakistani military, ran at least six opium refining centres within Pakistan during the 1980s, according to Alfred McCoy's 'The Politics of Heroin'. Bin Laden's personal fortune mysteriously multiplied during the same period. By 1996, the CIA itself reported that "heroin is becoming the lifeblood of Pakistan's economy and political system".

Pakistan is now emerging as a nuclear power with regional ambitions. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) was the main channel for US and Saudi support for the Afghan mujahidin. Today it has established its own control over the various mujahidin factions, including of course with the Taliban, which rapidly emerged from obscurity to fill the power vacuum in Kabul in the mid-1990s. There are believed to be at least 20 foreign mujahidin training camps located in Afghanistan and another 80 on Pakistani territory.

Chechen separatist commander Shamil Basayev led a group of Chechens to ISI-sponsored camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan during the mid-1990s. In Afghanistan, the Chechens visited the ISI's training facilities in the Khost area, then run by Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami.

A leading French specialist on political Islamic movements Antoine Sfeir has stressed the need to distinguish between 'Islamo-nationalists', such as Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front and the Palestinian Hamas, whose primary concern is domestic political change, and 'universalists', who regard existing borders and national distinctions as unimportant. It appears that a shift within the Chechen separatist movement has seen the increasing marginalisation of the 'Islamo-nationalists' and the growing predominance of the 'universalists'.

The unilateral declaration of Chechen independence in October 1991 by Dzhokar Dudayev was accompanied by the drafting of a secular constitution. This was now been set aside. The current Chechen leader, Aslan Maskhadov, replaced the secular legal system with Islamic Sharia law tribunals.

However, this was too little too late for his deputy and rival Shamil Basayev. Explaining the cause of the recent conflict, Basayev told one Islamicist magazine last year: "We only see the solution to the crisis of Chechnya with what agrees with the Islamic Sharia. In 1996, a solution to the problem was found not in accordance with the Sharia, which is why the war began a second time."

The Chechen rebel forces have three components. Aside from those locals still loyal to the breakaway republic's leader Maskhadov, there are others whose allegiance is to Basayev’s indigenous, but Islamicist, Chechen and Dagestani forces.

The third distinct force, but working entirely in tandem with Basayev, is led by an Arab mujahidin commander known as Ibn Khattab. After several years in Afghanistan, Khattab moved in 1992 to Tajikistan to fight with the Islamicist opposition. In 1995 he moved to Chechnya and began training Chechen and other Islamicists.

To an interviewer, who asked if his forces contained mujahidin from outside the Caucasus, Khattab replied: "Yes, we do have mujahidin, but not from outside, because the Islamic nation is one nation that belongs to all the Muslims. We have one common purpose, which is to expel the Russian forces and to create an Islamic State for all our brothers." He added that Russia's military actions are a "Christian war and crusade against Islam and its people and it is an obligation upon the Muslims, especially the great scholars, to support their mujahidin brothers in the land of the Caucasus."

Using Sfeir’s approach, we could place Maskhadov in the camp of Islamo-nationalism, Khattab is clearly a 'universalist', and Basayev’s group, aiming for a Caucasian Islamicist state, is a hybrid, which in practice leans toward the latter.

Russia blamed the Chechen mujahidin for a series of terrorist bombings in Moscow that claimed 300 lives. Others suspected a pre-election ploy by pro-Yeltsin security forces. The truth is far from clear. In an interview with Associated Press last September, Khattab had boasted that: "From now on they will get our bombs everywhere. Let Russia await our explosions blasting through their cities. I swear we will do it." Yet on the day of that interview's publication, Khattab told the Interfax news agency that he had nothing to do with the Moscow explosions, saying: "We would not like to be akin to those who kill sleeping civilians with bombs and shells."

Further Russian claims that the Chechen mujahidin are directly linked to Osama Bin Laden are part of attempt to win over Western critics. The mujahidin internationally are deeply factionalised and attempts to establish any central co-ordinating centre have invariably fragmented.

The common theme is that the various mujahidin groups seek patronage, arms, training and money, from various regimes, principally Pakistan, Iran and Sudan. It is the intermeshing of the fanaticism of the mujahidin with the foreign policy objectives of their patron states that accounts for the instability and unpredictability of these armed Islamicist groups. This has

become a crucial aspect of the current conflict in the Caucasus.

5 - NATO and the EU move East

In his book 'The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives' and other recent writings, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, has outlined the foreign policy dilemmas facing the US in a 'post-Cold War' world.

Brzezinski is an authoritative figure in several semi-official US think-tanks and has also taken to advising US oil interests in the Caucasus.

In an interview entitled 'Europe Is Still an American Protectorate', he stressed: " We can no longer speak of a European policy, nor of a Far Eastern policy, America must now design and manage a comprehensive transcontinental Eurasian policy… As Europe becomes more of a reality, NATO has to expand also and the two processes do not need to be simultaneous. In some instances, NATO can expand ahead of the EU, in some cases the European Union may expand ahead of NATO. "

The heart of this new policy would be support for the redrawing of frontiers and, provided of course it dovetailed with US interests, for separatism: "If a country is itself unstable, because some significant portion of it is highly dissatisfied with the existing country, then there is no point in artificially insisting that such a country be maintained because of a respect for borders or because of the fear of change."

As in the Balkans, such a strategy is unworkable in practice. The Caucasus region contains at least 50 distinct national entities, the Russian Federation almost 100. However, the promotion of an endless cycle of national separatisms has the advantage of weakening central authorities and, as in Kosovo, providing a pretext for eventual outside, 'humanitarian' intervention.

The pro-capitalist regimes in the region have all supported separatist forces in rival republics when it has suited them. Yeltsin backed several pro-Russian separatist forces in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Ajaria in Georgia. Russia likewise accuses Georgia of tolerating Chechen rebel supply routes on its territory.

Yet, despite occasional sabre-rattling rhetoric, Yeltsin's role during the Yugoslav crisis was critical, the final cobbled together agreement was jointly sponsored by Yeltsin crony Victor Chernomyrdin. The US magazine Newsweek even quoted a US official praising Yeltsin's key role in achieving at least some of Nato's objectives.

Russia's humiliation over Yugoslavia, then, was largely self-inflicted but it has led to a growing recognition among some sections of the Russian right that Western imperialist goals and Russian national interests, as defined by the new Russian bourgeoisie, are not entirely compatible.

Still a nuclear force, Russia has not yet been entirely disempowered in the region. There are approximately 100,000 Russian border guards deployed throughout the Confederation of Independent States, the body set up in 1991 after the dissolution of the USSR, specifically on the borders of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Armenia. Russia has also had troops and military bases in other CIS states such as Georgia and Moldova, though these have been subject to much greater local opposition and constraints.

Georgia is a key rival for Russian influence in the Caucasus. Former Soviet foreign minister, and now Georgian President, Eduard Shevardnadze is entirely pro-imperialist in foreign policy. In an interview with the Financial Times (October 25 1999), Shevardnadze stated his intention to "knock loudly on NATO's door" within five years.

In fact, a five-national alliance has already emerged. Georgia is a member – along with Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova – of the pro-Western GUUAM group, which has grown from an economic alliance to include military co-operation. This is the first post-USSR alliance of republics to exclude Russia. It also excludes Armenia, regarded as a Russian ally and a recent military opponent of Azerbaijan, with whom it has repeatedly clashed over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

In a statement, signed in Washington on April 24 1999, the presidents of the five GUUAM nations included the following aim: "To develop interaction within the framework of Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and NATO’s "Partnership for Peace" Programme."

The Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council is a Nato-sponsored body for discussing political and security issues, it is a diplomatic talking shop that even includes Russia. However, the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme is essentially a 'junior Nato' with two aims, first to accelerate the military restructuring of prospective Nato members and second to create a soft periphery of states plugged into Nato.

The PfP aims at "facilitating transparency in national defence planning and budgeting processes" and "developing cooperative military relations with NATO, for the purpose of joint planning, training and exercises in order to strengthen the ability of PfP participants to undertake missions in the field of peacekeeping, search and rescue, humanitarian operations, and others as may subsequently be agreed".

The last phrase is particularly ominous.

The 'New Nato' doctrine' had already been outlined by President Clinton before the attack against Yugoslavia. In February 26 1999 he said: "We are building a NATO capable, not only of deterring aggression against its own territory, but of meeting challenges to our security beyond its territory."

Turkey has been particularly active in the PfP programme, using it as a means to extend its influence, concentrating especially on offering military training to Turkic-speaking states of the former Soviet Union such as Azerbaijan.

Alongside Nato, the European Union is increasingly militarised. The European Defence Initiative was officially launched at the EU's Helsinki summit last year, allowing for a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force by the year 2003. Even aside from those states also applying for full Nato membership, the expansion of the EU raises the likelihood that Russia may soon face an EU politico-military alliance encompassing the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. EU president Romano Prodi has stated clearly that invitations to begin initial membership talks with Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia, were speeded up by the war in Kosovo.

Looking ahead, the US is also determined not to be locked into the Nato alliance should it identify a conflict between its own interests and those of the European powers.

The Pentagon has therefore established bilateral military programmes in 13 Eastern European countries. One recurring complaint during the aggression against Yugoslavia was the existence of parallel command structures in Albania where, alongside US forces under the Nato flag, the US had already stationed its own separate military forces some years previously.

According to a Washington Post article, 'US Military Builds Alliances Across Europe' (December 14, 1998), the US European Command in Stuttgart runs a Joint Contact Team Programme, which was "initially paid for from a discretionary fund held by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. To work within congressional prohibitions of training foreign troops, the visits by US military experts are called 'exchanges' and the experts are called ‘contact teams’ rather than trainers."

The same article noted the bonanza for US arms firms, a sector that has also seen a notable acceleration of mergers in Western Europe. Eastern Europe "has become the largest recipient of US-funded military equipment transfers after the Middle East".

Any Russian government, regardless of its political complexion, must therefore deal with the probability of directly facing Nato-EU forces on several borders from the Baltic to the Caspian Sea. The populations of neighbouring states are by no means unanimous in the embrace of Western dominance. Communist parties remain significant political forces in the southern Caucasus states of Georgia and Armenia as well as in Belarus, the Ukraine, and Moldova. In all cases, these CPs favour renewing and repairing economic and political ties with other former Soviet republics and combating nationalist and religious extremism.

The forthoming Russian presidential elections of 2000 were Russia's second held in the shadow of bloodshed in the Caucasus. Unless, the region's left and democratic forces can resist foreign interference and win multi-ethnic support for an alternative social and economic programme, supported by international solidarity against the onward expansion of Nato and the European Union, it may not be the last.