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The dozens of steep-sided valleys that slice deeply into the Greater (Northern) Caucasus are home to any multitude of ethnicities that defy central control. The resistance of some, like the Chechens of the mountains’ northern side, have made such a splash that they are globally recognized.

But these groups are famous for not just opposing dominant regional powers, but also for competing with each other. This means many often ally with the larger regional governments as a means of getting a leg up on their neighbors.

The 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia solidified the Russian alliance with the Abkhaz – a coastal people on the south side of the Greater Caucasus in Georgian territory – against the Georgians. But a closer look shows the complexity to which the Russians now have subjected themselves. The invasion brought the Russians into direct conflict with the Svans, a small group of mountain people who had long allied with the Georgians to rein in Abkhaz separatism. The Svans have a reputation of being nearly as competent fighters as the Chechens – certainly better than the Georgians. One of the Svaneti villages is pictured below.

Georgian military power may be a joke, and it likely will be Georgia’s destiny to again fall before the Red Army. But groups such as the Svans will constantly harry Russian power across the length and breadth of the Caucasus region, bleeding Russian resources that are so desperately needed elsewhere.

For more information on the Caucasus and the role it will play, see The Accidental Superpower, Chapters 10.