The Russian authorities have recently begun showing off the massive security measures being implemented ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. They have good reason to be worried — and not only for the safety of athletes and spectators.

The violence in the North Caucasus is becoming less a serious regional conflict and more an existential threat to the entire Russian Federation — an evolution that reflects almost all of the mistakes, failures, and crimes of the post-Soviet leadership.

Two horrific wars with local separatists, from 1994-1996 and from 1999- 2006, have been fought over Chechnya, presumably to secure Russia’s territorial integrity. We Russians fought these wars in order to demonstrate to the Chechens that they, too, were citizens of Russia. We did so by destroying their cities and villages with artillery shells and aerial bombardment, and we abducted and killed civilians, their bodies often bearing evidence of torture. It should surprise no one that the Chechens, and other peoples of the Caucasus, do not feel very Russian.

In reality, Russia has lost the war against the Chechen separatists. The winner was Ramzan Kadyrov, one of the field commanders in the fighting. Ostensibly, he is an appointee of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, but in reality he is virtually independent of the Kremlin, which pays him substantial financial support, not only for his formal declaration of loyalty, but also for his public embrace of Putin.

The war against separatism in the North Caucasus has now evolved into the war against Islamic fundamentalism. Ignited by the violence of the Chechen wars, Islamic-sponsored terrorism has spread widely in the region, as Russian policies, similar to those during the Chechen war, increase the number of Islamists.

President Dmitri Medvedev, for example, regularly calls for extremists to be “burned to ashes,” and for terrifyingly broad punishment, including of those “washing linen and preparing soup for terrorists.” Given the morality of federal forces (or the lack thereof), Medvedev should have understood that such rhetoric could result only in a significant increase in brutality and extrajudicial killings all over the North Caucasus.

The resulting mayhem has served only to spawn new suicide bombers willing to bring fresh terror to Russia’s heartland. Indeed, the paradox today is that Islamists seem to be losing influence in the Arab world while strengthening their position in the North Caucasus, where the Kremlin has fought a 12-year war without understanding the scope of the tragedy taking place — a civil and ethnic war for which the Kremlin itself bears significant responsibility.

After all, the tribute that the Kremlin pays Kadyrov and the corrupted elites of the other Caucasian republics has purchased palaces and gold pistols for men who are driving the region’s young, unemployed, and disadvantaged down the path of Islamic revolution.

Across the Caucasus, a generation has grown up absolutely lost to Russia — and increasingly susceptible to recruitment into the ranks of Allah’s warriors. A nearly unbridgeable mental gap now separates Russians and Caucasian young people. Young Muscovites march carrying banners that read “F*ck the Caucasus!” Young Caucasians, perceiving themselves as a winning side in the Northern Caucasus, behave in increasingly provocative and aggressive ways on the streets of Russian cities. In the hearts and minds of people, Russians and Caucasians are becoming increasingly alienated from each other.

But neither the Kremlin nor its North Caucasian allies are ready for formal separation. The former remains wedded to its phantom imperial illusions about a “zone of privileged interests” extending far beyond Russia’s borders, while the latter, starting with Kadyrov, rule as independent autocrats happy to accept handouts from the Russian state budget. The irony is that, like the Kremlin and its allies, the Islamists do not want to separate. They dream about a Caliphate that would include much more of the Russian Federation than the North Caucasus.

Recently, Medvedev convened a large public meeting in Vladikavkaz. He accused anonymous enemies (his anonymous “they” presumably included Western governments) of pursuing an agenda to destroy Russia, and he encouraged his security officials to push back.

In Medvedev’s mental universe, savage reprisals today will somehow turn the North Caucasus into a zone of international ski tourism tomorrow. That is not likely to happen. The day after Medvedev’s departure from Vladikavkaz, terrorists blew up the ski lifts at the resort in Nalchik, not far from Sochi, where, for Russia, much more than winning medals will be at stake in 2014.

Andrei Piontkovsky is a Russian political scientist and a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. © 2011 Project Syndicate

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