It is difficult to know exactly what is going on in Dagestan, an isolated Russian republic of 2 million, mostly poor, people. Journalists steer clear of the region since local warlords started kidnapping for ransom. All that is certain is that last weekend, a band of about 1,200 Islamic Wahabite fundamentalists entered the province from neighboring Chechnya, seized several villages and declared an independent Islamic republic. Suppressing the rebellion is the first task for Russia’s new prime minister, Mr. Vladimir Putin. He has promised success in two weeks. If the past is any guide, the conflict will long outlast Mr. Putin’s tenure in office.

Dagestan is a fractured republic of 32 ethnic groups, many of whom sympathize with the Islamists. The terrain is mountainous — perfect for guerrilla forces. Worse, the rebels’ field commander is Mr. Shamil Basayev, a successful leader during the Chechen war who already tops Moscow’s most wanted list for a deadly 1995 raid on a Russian hospital. That conflict lasted three years, claimed an estimated 100,000 lives and left the republic with de-facto independence. Thus far, at least 10 Russian soldiers have been killed and 27 wounded in five days of fighting in Dagestan.

Moscow cannot afford to take the threat of Dagestan’s independence lightly. The republic is strategically important territory next to the Caspian Sea. But just as troubling for Mr. Putin is the prospect of Islamic insurgencies spreading throughout Central Asia. The Chechens were more nationalist than fundamentalist; the fundamentalists behind this conflict want all of the region liberated from Moscow’s orbit and united under Islamic leadership. That is a scenario that no one wants to see realized. It is unlikely that Mr. Putin’s government can do much to stop it, however. That does not mean victory for the rebels is inevitable; rather, the conflict is likely to be long and bloody.

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