Lord of the Caucasus”–is the capital of North Ossetia, a tiny republic on the southernmost fringe of the Russian Federation. North Ossetia is an ethnic stew, with Christian Ossetes, Christian and Muslim Georgians, and Muslim Chechens and Ingush living in uncomfortable proximity in mountain valleys. Rival groups conducted open warfare there in the early 1990s, and sporadic fighting continues along Ossetia’s eastern border with Ingushetia. There is also still an active political movement seeking unification with South Ossetia in the Republic of Georgia, perhaps as an independent Ossetian state.

But as Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin and Federal Security Service chief Vladimir Putin traveled to the scene to organize the investigation, most attention focused on Islamic groups connected to anarchic Chechnya. In Chechnya just two weeks ago, unknown persons abducted a Russian Interior Ministry general, who is now the most notable among the estimated 700 hostages in Chechnya, including 100 Russian servicemen and seven Georgians. Minister Stepashin initially threatened military action to secure his general’s release, but last week, before the bombing in Vladikavkaz, he retreated, saying “there will be no war in Chechnya.”

War is probably not an option. Russia’s last effort to subdue the Chechens, a brutally incompetent two-year war in 1994-1996, cost perhaps 60,000 lives (mostly Chechen civilians) and accomplished nothing. The Russian government probably lacks the political strength to carry out another such draining, futile and enormously unpopular effort. Fear is still the most serious counterweight to the centrifugal forces tugging at the northern Caucasus, but it is fear of chaos, not of Russia.