The hills above this military staging post in southeastern Ingushetia are a riot of fall colors. The high, snow-capped Caucasus Mountains seem to float on the mist beyond, like a living postcard. But in the immediate foreground, tanks and armored personnel carriers churn up a muddy field. Groups of young conscripts in filthy uniforms, assault rifles slung over their shoulders, stand idly about.
A few days ago a band of Chechen rebel fighters crossed the border into Ingushetia and ambushed a Russian patrol in broad daylight, killing some 50 soldiers from this base, according to the Moscow media. A Russian major, standing on the camp's perimeter, says the attack occurred but refuses to give his name or any details of the action.
"We're fighting here so that these boys won't have to fight one day in their own hometowns," he says, gesturing toward a group of conscripts. The rugged but confident-looking major's uniform is freshly starched, and he wears a peaked cap with a silver double-headed eagle badge. "If we don't take strong measures now, all this instability will spread."
Then he offers an analogy that speaks volumes about the mind-set of the Russian military, as they commit more and more resources in pursuit of victory against the Chechen irregulars who own those forested hills beyond the base. After World War II, the USSR fought a little-known counterinsurgency struggle to destroy CIA-backed anti-Soviet guerrillas in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine. "Those Ukrainians were the same kind of bandits, fighting us in similar terrain," he says. "It took 10 years, but we ground them down and eventually wiped them out. We'll do the same here."
The irony of that comparison seems completely lost on him: Ukraine is today an independent country, and those long-buried guerrillas are being transformed into national folk heroes. The USSR may have won the war, but it failed in the long run to create a society that any of its diverse peoples wanted to belong to.
Post-Soviet Russia appears headed down the same road. Its Achilles' heel is here, in the North Caucasus. Six impoverished and restive ethnic republics nestle up against the high wall of the mountains, which separate Europe from Asia in this part of the world: Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachayevo-Cherkess. Of these, all but one are traditionally Muslim. All are rent with internal discord, and it is growing worse under the impact of the deepening cataclysm in Chechnya.
"This is a colonial war, and it will end ... with the republics of the North Caucasus breaking free from Russia," says Franz Sheregi, an analyst with the Institute of Social and National Issues in Moscow. "They cannot be integrated into Russia, except under a colonial system. And that means endless war and dissension."
It's hard to escape that conclusion here on Ingushetia's rugged frontier with Chechnya. Russian artillery batteries dug into hillsides hammer the nearby Chechen towns of Bamut and Sernovodsk around the clock. Gunships and fighter planes sweep in over the safety of Ingush territory, firing rockets at rebels.
The Ingush are closely related to the Chechens, and until 1991 were united in a republic with them. When Chechnya opted to secede from the Russian Federation, Ingushetia stayed with Moscow. But Russia has since forfeited most of that goodwill. A two-year war to crush Chechnya's independence in 1994-96 killed some 80,000 people.
In September, Russia launched an "antiterrorist" campaign that its army has turned into a full-fledged effort to refight the previous war - only "smarter" this time. Some 200,000 Chechen civilians fleeing into Ingushetia carry horror stories of savage and indiscriminate Russian bombardment of their homes, public places, and refugee columns.
At a checkpoint just down the road from Verkhni Alkum, an Ingush police sergeant, who asked not to be named, is contemptuous of the Russian soldiers. "They come out to the road to beg for food and cigarettes from passing cars," he says. "But if we try to approach them, they crouch down and raise their guns. They're scared to death of us."
Russia conquered the North Caucasus in the 19th century after decades of guerrilla warfare. The Chechens were the last to surrender. In World War II, Stalin deported tens of thousands of Chechens to Siberia as punishment for their supposed collaboration with the Germans. But in later Soviet times, things settled down, and the Communist social contract took hold.
"The elite from every ethnic group could gain advantage by joining the Communist party, and even found it possible to call themselves Soviet citizens," says Sergei Kazyenov, a Caucasus specialist with the independent Institute for National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow. "For all of its flaws, the USSR had a unifying ideology and force."
But the Soviet Union is dead, and Boris Yeltsin's Russia has failed to appeal to its non-Russian citizens - particularly the Muslim Caucasians - with any new integrating principle. And rising nationalist forces are pressing a definition of Russianness that hinges on Slavic ethnicity, Russian culture, and Orthodox Christianity. Those forces are fueling the war to subjugate Chechnya, and warning against any peace talks or political compromises.
"The search for a long-term political solution has been totally disrupted by the military action," says Mr. Kazyenov. "If we fail to create a Russian civilization that embraces the Caucasian people, we will surely lose them."
"We are a small people, but we want our freedom" says Liza Nagalayeva, a Chechen schoolteacher who fled her burning hometown three weeks ago. "The Russians say we must be part of Russia. But they talk only with guns and rockets, and they will never win the argument that way."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society