It's War: The Trans-Caucasus War
The most ignored story off the day, ignored even on Daily Kos as the Edwards "scandal" hits, is the new war between Russia and Georgia. I don't know how much I can inform people about this, but it is the latest war in the trans-Caucus flashpoint that perhaps you remember includes Chechnya.
Today, Russian tanks invaded Georgia territory to support a break away Republican called South Ossetia. Georgia considered this an act of war and there is currently fierce fighting between Russian and Georgian forces within South Ossetia.
This is the same region where Russia is dealing with breakaway republics, including North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Daghastan and Chechnya. It is possible this skirmish could explode into a full trans-Caucus war, one that has been brewing for a decade and involves many ethnic, religious and political conflicts. I don't have a lot to say about this conflict except it has been long in coming, whether it was a third Chechen war or a Russia/Georgia conflict or some other conflict or a mix of them all. I also want to note that in the past al-Qaeda used these trans-Caucus conflicts to its benefit and I suspect they will do so again. Osama bin Laden got a big boost from the Chechen and Daghastan conflicts and he could get a boost from this one. I also want to take this opportunity to refer to a book review I wrote in 2007 of a book called Grief of my Heart, written by a Chechen doctor who lived through both Chechen wars.
One thing I will note is that the Russians immediately made the same mistake that led to their defeat (yes...I said it...their DEFEAT) in the first Chechen war. They went in with largely unsupported armor. This mistake cost the Germans the battle of Stalingrad in WW II, and cost the Russians the first Chechen war. Unsupported armor in an urban setting is a sitting duck for a well organized infantry. The Russians learned that lesson in Chechnya and sent in a more mixed force in the second Chechen war, which they won, though without solving the conflict.
So far the Georgians don't seem to have succeeded in taking advantage of this error by the Russians. Maybe South Ossetian rebels are supporting the Russian armor. That would be a good solution for the Russian forces. But so far it is hard to tell what is up.
From here I borrow from my Greif of my Heart review.
Dagestan Chechnya Ingushetia North Ossetia Georgia Armenia Azerbaijan...South Ossetia
The Caucus Mountains dominate these nations, would-be nations, and territories. This has been a crossroads for millennia, the meeting point of large ethnic groups, religions and civilizations from the earliest moments of history.
The nations, would-be nations and territories I list above barely register in the minds of Americans. Few in America had heard of them, except maybe Armenia, until the fall of the Soviet Union. After that, these names, if they registered at all in our minds, became symbolic of Balkanization on a scale that would make the Balkans blush, with split off movements from split off movements. After 9/11, Chechnya and Dagestan became places where we thought al-Qaeda operated, a battleground, training ground and testing ground for international terrorism.
And that is probably all you know about this region.
Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in many ways have histories that go back before recorded history. These were a part of the rise of civilization, sometimes centrally, more often peripherally.
Armenia has been proposed as the original location of the Garden of Eden, or, more properly, the place that inspired the myth of the Garden of Eden. This was a place battled over by some of the earliest empires known: the Hittites, the Mitanni, Urartu. It was fought over by the Romans and Parthians, then the Romans and Persians. Armenia was the first nation on earth to establish Christianity as its official religion.
It was once believed that the natives of the Caucus nation of Georgia were descended from the ancient Cimmerians (a people immortalized and fictionalized in the Conan the Barbarian books). When the Mycenaean Greeks, Jason and the Argonauts, landed at Colchis looking for the Golden Fleece, they had arrived in Georgia.
Azerbaijanis may also be descended from ancient Cimmerians and their distant relatives the Scythians, forming a people called Albanians (not related to the Balkan Albanians!).
The South Caucuses were the Northernmost limits of the earliest civilizations and were the place where the nomadic cultures of the Steppes, Cimmerians, Scythians, Saramatians, Huns, Turks, Mongols, etc. met the great empires of Mesopotamia, Assyria, Babylon, Hatti, Parthia, Persia, etc. The North Caucuses, including Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia, were the southernmost edge of the steppe, where steppe nomads met the mountain tribes of the Caucuses before invading the empires to the South.
What fascinates me most about these North Caucus people is that they would include the descendents of the core region of a medieval empire of Khazaria, the Jewish Empire. It is quite possible that Ashkenazi Jews share ancestors with modern Chechens, since Chechnya was on the Southern edge of Khazaria, the largest Jewish state ever to have existed, while the origins of the Ashkinazim would have been at the Western and Northern end of the Khazar territory. Interestingly, I noticed that some Chechen names struck me as characteristically Jewish. The Chechen name Khava, for example seems much the same as Chava, a common Jewish name. That could be either coincidental, or due to similarities in Muslim and Jewish names. But I don't know of any Muslims named Chava!
At the NYU medical center, I sometimes hang out and drink with some Russian friends. They were from all over Russia: Moscow, Petersburg, Siberia, even from Russia via emigration to Israel. They were mostly liberals, hating Bush unlike the older generation of Russians who moved to America who idolize Reagan and the Republican Party. Many had opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya that were the Vietnam wars of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, respectively. And yet, they had absorbed some of the semi-propaganda that the Chechens were all bandits, criminals and fighters. There is a grain of truth in this, as there is in all stereotypes, but only a grain. Of course most Chechens are much like anyone else, though they do come from a long warrior tradition, much like the Apache, the Japanese, the Zulu, the Mongols, the Germans.
The book Grief of my Heart tells the story of Chechens caught in the way of a Russia that needed to exert its strength in the ruins of the Soviet Empire. It tells the story from the point of view of the Chechens and the Russian friends and acquaintances they had. At times I felt some of the rougher spots of the Chechens were smoothed over a bit much: al-Qaeda involvement in the conflict, the tradition of kidnapping brides, the bloodier actions of some Chechen fighters. But overall it is a balanced and amazing story from the point of view of the real people behind the "bandit" stereotype that the Soviet, and then Russian, governments slapped on the Chechens.
I think it is important to keep in mind the Russian need to exert its strength in the ruins of the Soviet Empire now that it has picked a fight with Georgia over Georgia's own version of Chechnya: South Ossetia.
I end with a quote from Grief of my Heart, a quote that shows the long term effects war has on societies, and one that the trans-Caucuses will be dealing with for decades to come:
"You're dead!" shouted a small boy to his friend who crouched behind a burned-out car on the street.
"No! I killed you first. Fall down!"
I stopped in my tracks. I counted fifteen kids of all ages, including girls, playing war, oblivious to the danger all around them.
In the background you could hear the firing of real guns. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. They had lived with war so long, that was all they knew.
I couldn't get those kids out of my mind. If someone didn't get them off the streets, they could grow into little animals with no knowledge of right or wrong; no traditions to guide them. Bang! Bang! You're dead! That is all they would know.
That is what Georgia, Russia and Ossetia are condemning the Caucuses to.