For the second time in five years, violence in the Russian Caucasus has reached the level of civil war. Large numbers–a thousand? two thousand?–of armed forces based in Chechnya have crossed into Dagestan and joined with locally based insurgents to occupy several villages and towns and take control of sparsely populated mountainous countryside. Federal forces are attacking from the air, bombing population centers in Chechnya and suspected rebel encampments in Dagestan. Probably 90-100 federal troops and local militia and police have died in the latest wave of fighting, along with uncounted opposing forces and a rising number of civilians.

The rebels are largely Wahhabis, followers of an Islamic fundamentalism generally incompatible with the traditional Islamic practices of the region and generally condemned by the local muftis, including those who emerged in the post-Soviet era. But the motives of the rebels are complex and as much ethnic as sectarian.

Perhaps to prepare the citizenry for a renewal of the 1994-96 war in Chechnya, Russian state television (NTV) last week showed horrifying clips of Chechens beheading some hostages and forcing others to hold out their fingers, which they then shot off one by one.

Though evidence is lacking or not public, Chechens are widely blamed for the explosion that killed at least ninety and destroyed a nine-story apartment building in a Moscow working-class neighborhood last Wednesday. Mayor Yuri Luzhkov called the blast a terrorist act linked to the car bomb that killed sixty in a military housing area in Dagestan two weeks ago. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin more cautiously said the Moscow explosion was either terrorism or “criminal negligence.”

Russians find it easy to hate the Chechens, whom they have been fighting and killing for 170 years. But such is the wretched state of Russian politics that some believe the perpetrator of the Moscow explosion may be the government itself. Duma Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin reportedly attributed the blast, along with an earlier, nonlethal explosion in a Moscow shopping center, to a Kremlin plot against Luzhkov. Ilyukhin can be dismissed as a froth-at-the-mouth nationalist, but at least one mainstream figure, Sergei Sobyanin, seems to be thinking along similar lines. Sobyanin, chairman of the committee on judicial and legal affairs in the Federation Council (parliament’s upper house), points out that the Moscow explosions and the war in Dagestan create conditions for declaring a state of emergency and canceling elections. Sobyanin uses the blunt instrument of Russian political analysis–the question “who stands to gain?”–to hint at a Kremlin conspiracy to keep President Boris Yeltsin in power.

Under the constitution, however, a presidential declaration of emergency cannot take effect without approval by the Federation Council, which recently has stood up to and rejected Kremlin pressures. Sobyanin thinks they may be called on to do so again.