The fighting in Dagestan was abating as of late August. Russian firepower had slowed the Chechen-backed Islamic militants, led by an international corps of Islamists, including Chechen “field commander” (read: “warlord”) Shamil Basayevaud the Jordanian professional militant known only as “Khattab.” They had seized 20 towns and villages in the mountainous region of western Dagestan, and the emissaries of the newly proclaimed “Islamic Republic,” reportedly backed by Osama Bin Ladin’s network, fanned out to the capitals of die Islamic world, seeking aid and recognition, casting themselves as holy warriors fighting the armies of the infidel.

Only by concentrating the firepower of their shrinking number of battle-ready units and deploying elite airborne troops—Yeltsin’s Pretorian Guard, usually held in reserve near Moscow—did the Russians turn back the tide. For now. Nevertheless, the mujahedin are said to have made inroads in recruiting the mountain peoples of the hodgepodge Republic of Dagestan (in part because Russian commanders displayed their usual ham-fisted approach to counter-insurgency warfare, killing innocent villagers along with “bandits” in air and artillery bombardments), and Basayev has announced that the war is simply entering a new “partisan” phase. Moscow is gripped by fear of terrorist attacks, and Russian troops have failed to seal the border with Chechnya. In the Russian hinterlands, the parents of conscript troops are uneasy, as are the troops themselves: The Russians despise the Caucasian “blacks” and back punitive actions against Basayev’s bases in Chechnya, but nobody wants to die to keep these wildmen within the Russian Federation. The often puny, diseased conscripts don’t know what they are supposed to be fighting for, since most Russians have already fled Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia for the Russian Caucasus. The Stavropol and Krasnodar Cossacks arc arming themselves, preparing again to play the role of frontier guardian.

Meanwhile, the Chechens have stepped up their most lucrative cottage industry: kidnapping. The hostage trade is a source of extra income tor the Chechen clans, but it also helps explain just what the Islamists are up to in Dagestan. Ranging as far away as Moscow, the Chechen kidnapping gangs are no longer restricting themselves to ransom-style snatches. They want slaves, Russian slaves, but of a particular type—technicians who can operate the oil pipelines and refineries in Chechnya, for the Chechens (and their patrons) have big plans. Those plans involve Caspian Sea oil, pipeline routes through the Caucasus, and the creation of an Islamic confederation in the North Caucasus. But the projected confederation needs an outlet on the Caspian, so Dagestan was targeted by the Islamic geo-strategists. It may need one on the Black Sea as well, which explains Chechen terrorist Salman Raduyev’s attempted assassination of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze last year and his backing of Georgian Abkaz separatists. But the zeal of the Islamists and the aid of Muslim states was not enough. The “field commanders” needed a mediator, someone with contacts in the Caucasus, the West (the Russians are justifiably suspicions of Western oil companies who would like to cut them out of the potentially lucrative Caspian oil flow), and Moscow.

They found their man —or maybe he found them—in the person of Kremlin courtier, media magnate, and banking “oligarch” Boris Abramovich Berezovsky, known as “BAB” far and wide. BAB is alternately a Russian patriot, a captain of industry (he is part owner of the Sibneft oil company, among others), a suffering Jew (his critics are automatically dubbed “antisemitic” by his growing stable of newspapers and TV stations), Russia’s Moriarty, and a Thinker of Great Thoughts who uses his media to opine on Russian politics, history, economics, and society. But most of all, BAB is a survivor. With Yeltsin a lame duck, investigators seizing his Swiss bank accounts, and his enemies poised for a post-Yeltsin comeback, the struggling oligarch may need a new base of operations, perhaps in the Caucasus. At any rate, the word is out in Moscow that it was BAB as much as Bin Ladin who inspired the Dagestan fighting: If the fighting got out of control, Yeltsin could declare a state of emergency and call off the next elections. At the very least, BAB could make himself useful once more, mediating between the Kremlin and his old friends in Chechnya, regaining lost ground in Moscow.