Breakaway autonomous regions in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan are creating a headache for the Bush administration’s geopolitical planners. The instability of this region — the Southern Caucasus — was thrown into bold relief last week by the hostage-taking of schoolchildren in the nearby North Ossetia town of Beslan, where Russian troops stormed the school and where at least 338 people were killed, more than half of them children.

Should the smoldering ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus be handled with similar imperial, strong-arm tactics, the whole region could be engulfed in a violent cataclysm.

Azerbaijan is rich in oil and natural gas, particularly around its capital, Baku, on the Caspian Sea. The country’s estimated oil reserves range from 3.7 billion to 40 billion barrels. Western oil companies, led by British Petroleum, have launched an ambitious pipeline project to transport this oil westward, through Azerbaijan and Georgia, to the Turkish town of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea. Its ultimate destination is Europe. A parallel natural gas pipeline will send Caspian gas through Turkey to the “new” and old Europe, breaking what Western energy interests refer to as Europe’s “strategic dependence on Russian gas.”

But ethnic strife may jeopardize the pipeline’s security. In Georgia, the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia seek affiliation with Russia. In Azerbaijan, the Armenian enclave of Nogorno-Karabakh seeks to affiliate with nearby Armenia. Ethnic tensions are acute. Russia has military bases in both South Ossetia and Armenia.

The Toronto Star, under the headline “Russia, Georgia face war over separatist provinces,” reports that the new Georgian leader, U.S.-trained Mikheil Saakashvili, wants to “reunite” the two separatist territories with Georgia. Vitaly Naumkin, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Moscow, warns of a drift toward “full scale war” between Georgia and the two autonomous provinces.

The Aug. 8 Moscow News quotes Saakashvili: “If war begins it will be a war between Georgia and Russia, not between the Georgians and Ossetians. … We are very close to a war [with Russia], the population must be prepared.” Such a large-scale conflict would be catastrophic. Recent skirmishes between Georgian and South Ossetian troops have already taken the lives of 17 people.

A similar military conflict hovers over Azerbaijan, as authorities there try to regain control over the autonomous territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. This enclave, composed of ethnic Armenians and surrounded by Azerbaijani territory, gained independence in 1994 and developed strong ties with Armenia. Coping with the strong Armenian nationalism of the territory has proved to be no easy task for the Azerbaijani government, which has looked to the U.S. for help. A hastily arranged visit to Azerbaijan by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld apparently resulted in the U.S. gaining a military presence there. But it is doubtful that U.S. troops will contribute to peace in the region, as their mission will likely include anti-Iran actions as well as suppressing Armenian nationalism.

The oil pipeline, dubbed the Baku-Tiblisi (Georgia’s capital)-Ceyhan (BTC) project, is a key part of a broader U.S. strategy. In a recent article at Asia Times Online, John Helmer refers to it as an effort “to redraw the geography of the Caucasus on an anti-Russian map,” undercutting Russia’s clout in Europe and elsewhere.

Despite “sincere assurances” to Russia that the U.S. means no harm — neither in the form of the planned realignment of Washington’s NATO and South Korean-based forces to positions around Russia, nor the new U.S. bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Central Asia on Russia’s southern flank, nor this “anti-Russian map” in the Caucasus — Russia is unlikely to buy it. Instead, Russia will seek to strengthen its own position in the Caucasus and in Central Asia, chiefly by strengthening the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) and the Collective Treaty Organization, which recently conducted military exercises involving five Central Asian nations, including Russia.

Russia is also expected to push for its own interests by teaming up with Iran, and opening what Helmer calls “the shortest, cheapest and most lucrative oil route of all, southward out of the Caspian to Iran.”

The stage is set for more strife and bloodshed as the U.S. and Russia jockey for strategic advantage. In an echo of the “Great Game” between Victorian England and czarist Russia over control of Central Asia in the 19th century, the pursuit of oil may once again create havoc and misery for the peoples of the region.

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