Can the Caucasus flames be controlled?
The Caucasus tinderbox is alight again. How far will the flames spread this time and what can the outside world – the United States, the European Union, NATO – do to extinguish them?
The strategic significance of this mountainous region stretches back through history.
To the west lies the Black Sea, to the east the Caspian, to the south the Mediterranean, Iran and Turkey.
In the past Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the Russian tsars struggled to control its trade routes. Today Russia and the West are competing for influence over its energy pipelines carrying Caspian oil to world markets.
The Caucasus’ blue mountains and fiercely independent people have caught the imagination of Russian writers, Lermontov and Tolstoy. It has created only headaches for political leaders.
Georgia’s pro-Russian breakaway region South Ossetia is the latest battle ground in a long-running conflict.
Will the fighting, involving Russian and Georgian troops end there, or will another of Georgia’s breakaway regions Abkhazia seize the opportunity to press its claim for autonomy?
And what of Chechnya, a thorn in Russia’s side for nearly two centuries. Moscow sent in the troops to bring Chechnya to heel in 1994 and again in 1999. Will it try again to free itself of Moscow’s influence?
And what can the international community do to end the fighting. Dependent on Russian oil and gas, Europe has little or no room for manouevre. The United States has provided vocal backing of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, but he would be misguided to expect more. So who can put out the flames?