Boris Samoyev, a driver from war-torn South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, pulls his car over to allow a convoy of Russian military trucks to roll past. The trucks are heading south into the Roki Tunnel, which connects the republics of North and South Ossetia.
"The Russians have helped us so much. They came when the Georgians were beating our door down, and drove them back," Mr. Samoyev says. "We Ossetians have always been loyal to Russia, and they have proven that we made the right choice."
Though Moscow threw relations with the West into crisis by striking with massive force when Georgia attempted to seize breakaway South Ossetia in August, the impact in Russia's turbulent, multiethnic northern Caucasus appears to be in the Kremlin's favor – at least for now.
Many experts in North Ossetia, the most important of the seven ethnic republics in this troubled region because of its historic and current loyalty to Moscow, say Russia would have risked disaffection if it hadn't acted to protect South Ossetia.
Some add that the Kremlin should now allow North and South Ossetia to unite, creating a pro-Moscow Ossetian republic that straddles the Caucasus Mountains, to enhance stability in the whole region.
"This war showed that Russia is strong and a force to be reckoned with. In one stroke, Moscow reassured its friends in the region and warned its enemies. This will have a calming effect throughout the Caucasus," says Nodar Taberti, a South Ossetian economist.
During the war, thousands of North Ossetians besieged military recruitment stations, demanding to be sent to the front lines, experts here say. "If the Russian Army hadn't marched, thousands of Ossetian men would have gone in on their own to fight the Georgians," says Khasan Dzutsev, director of the official Center for Social Research in Vladikavkaz. "Especially since [the terrorist school massacre in] Beslan, people here have wondered whether Moscow would protect them. This was the moment of truth."
But critics argue that Moscow has set a baneful precedent by recognizing the independence of South Ossetia, and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, and may pay a heavy price for it down the road.
"All the arguments that [President Dmitry] Medvedev used to justify Russia's recognition of South Ossetia can apply in equal measure to Chechnya, or other republics of the north Caucasus," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Since Moscow has granted special status to two Caucasian republics – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – it's only a matter of time before others start demanding the same treatment."
The northern Caucasus is often called "Russia's Balkans," because its knot of often mutually hostile nationalities. The mainly Orthodox Christian Ossetians joined the Russian Empire voluntarily two centuries ago. Others, like the mainly Muslim Chechens, were subdued in 19th-century wars, and have risen up in rebellion when Moscow's grip has faltered.
Soviet social engineers awarded a quasi-statehood to the many smaller nationalities, grouping them in "autonomous republics," most of which were placed inside the larger "union republic" of Russia. But Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, an ethnic Georgian, folded South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Georgia. That had unintended consequences when the USSR collapsed in 1991, triggering separatist rebellions in both republics.
The biggest winners in Russia's war against Georgia may turn out to be the Ossetians, who number less than 1 million, in the two republics. Many here believe it's a matter of time before their divided nation is united under a 2001 Russian law that permits outside territories to join the Russian Federation. Unification would make the Ossetians Moscow's bridgehead into the energy-rich and strategically important south Caucasus, which includes independent Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.
"A divided nation has the right to reunite," says Stanislav Kesayev, deputy speaker of North Ossetia's parliament. "It may not happen tomorrow, but after a period of consolidating its independence, South Ossetia will raise this request. Everyone in both north and south parts of our nation desires this."
After the war, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity suggested amalgamation was imminent. But now Mr. Kokoity says that "the issue of joining Russia is not on the agenda today. Russia has put it clearly that it is not going to annex other countries' territories." But he adds, "Our people want to join with North Ossetia, and we already consider ourselves to be united [in many ways]."
But most analysts don't think Russia wants North and South Ossetia unified. "It would look to the world like Russian annexation. Russia wants South Ossetia to be independent ... because it keeps the instability factor going in Georgia. Also, the Kremlin worries about the implications of creating a 'greater Ossetia' in the Caucasus, because it might set up similar pressures among other republics who have territorial aspirations beyond their current borders," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.
Despite the pro-Russian feelings here, some remain deeply skeptical of Moscow's intentions. In Beslan, where 330 people, mostly children, were killed in a school siege four years ago, some recall that it was the 58th Russian Army that shot first.
"It's hard to welcome the sight of the 58th Army storming into a neighboring territory and killing people, just as they did here in Beslan," says Ella Kesayeva, cochair of Voice of Beslan, a group representing the victims' relatives. "We fear that Russia wants something on this territory and is using the suffering of people as a means to get what it wants."
• Olga Podolskaya contributed from Tskinvali, South Ossetia. Yesterday: Who started the war in Georgia?