Apparently inspired by rising conservatism in Russia, separatist forces in Georgia launched an offensive with tanks, warplanes and heavy artillery Tuesday, trying to drive the Georgian army from the capital of their breakaway province on Russia's southern border.
At least 75 combatants and civilians were reported killed and hundreds more wounded in the fighting in Sukhumi, a once-popular Black Sea resort now on the front line of an ethnic war for control of the Georgian province of Abkhazia.
Georgian leader Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who went to Sukhumi after his army repelled the attack, accused the Russians of directing and taking part in it.
"After what happened today, I can boldly state that we are in fact dealing with a Russian-Georgian conflict," Shevardnadze told an emergency session of Parliament in Tbilisi, the capital of his former Soviet republic.
Although Russia's Defense Ministry denied the charge, it has been clear for months that Russian forces in Georgia, remnants of the Soviet Red Army, are siding with the separatists in the hope of holding onto air bases and other installations on the Black Sea.
Tuesday's attack in Abkhazia followed warning signs that Moscow, pushed by conservative nationalist forces that humiliated Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin in a parliamentary power struggle last week, is prepared to assert greater dominance over Russia's immediate neighbors.
The Georgian leadership, which started the conflict last August by trying to crush an Abkhazian independence movement, says that it is being punished by Moscow for demanding the withdrawal from Georgia of Russia's two infantry divisions and troops at two air bases. It has also declined to join the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose alliance of 11 former Soviet republics that includes Russia.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Yeltsin has generally been viewed as a democrat willing to live in peace with the other newly independent states and a bulwark against Russian nationalists campaigning to reimpose Moscow's hegemony.
But in a Feb. 28 statement that set off alarm bells in many former Soviet lands, he said the United Nations and other international organizations should grant Russia "special powers as a guarantor of peace and stability in the region of the former Soviet Union."
That was followed by a hardening of Russia's stand in negotiations with Ukraine on the status of 176 strategic nuclear missiles that the Soviet Union had deployed on Ukrainian soil; Russia balked at spelling out the security guarantees that Yeltsin had promised Ukraine two months ago if it would scrap the weapons.
Russia has used its army to protect Russian-speaking minorities fighting against the government of Moldova. And it has employed its oil and gas exports in peaceful but tense disputes with Ukraine and the Baltic states over the threatened status of Russian troops and other citizens in those countries.
But it is in Georgia, in the volatile Caucasus Mountain region separating Russia from the Middle East, that Russia is involved most deeply in one of the many ethnic conflicts that are one consequence of the Soviet collapse.
The death toll on both sides of the Abkhazia conflict is more than 1,200.
As many as 3,000 of the rebel soldiers are volunteers from the Caucasian People's Confederation, an alliance of Muslim republics within southern Russia seeking autonomy from both Russia and Georgia.
Russia at first tried to bar the volunteers from entering Abkhazia and then shifted its policy. Its conservative Parliament has openly taken the rebels' side, and its army has abandoned its bystander role.
As Georgian artillery bombardments hit close to its installations, the Russian army called in paratroopers and returned fire. At least once, on Feb. 20, Russia admitted conducting a retaliatory air attack on Sukhumi.
The only truce in the conflict, last September, broke down quickly. Peace talks are stymied by the rebels' demand that all Georgian troops first leave Abkhazia and by Georgia's insistence on the Russians' withdrawal.
Georgian leaders were alarmed into preparing for an enemy offensive after Russian Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev visited a Russian base near Gudauta on Feb. 26 and pointedly asserted his army's intention to stay in the Caucasus region.
In interviews at the time, Abkhazian separatists said Russia's increasingly hard line had encouraged their plans to recapture Sukhumi, a heavily fortified city whose peacetime population of 120,000 has been reduced by half. And Russian officers made it clear that their mission was to resist expulsion by the Georgians.
"Russia's strategic interests are here," a Russian army captain said. "After Ukraine gained its independence we were left with a very narrow stretch of the Black Sea coast. Historically, Russians have paid with blood for the Black Sea."
Abkhazian leaders denied that the Russian army took part in Tuesday's attack. They said the Russian-made tanks they used had been captured from the Georgians in previous fighting and that the Russian-made SU-25 warplanes that bombed the city, damaging dozens of homes, were their own.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its troops were "neutral" in the conflict but had orders to shoot any attackers.
Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister with close ties to Western leaders, said he has intelligence reports that "Russians are directing the Abkhazian attack" and flying bombing missions. He appealed to Yeltsin, his old comrade on the Soviet Politburo, to stop it.
"The conservative forces operating in Russia want to relieve the tension that now reigns in that country at the expense of relations with Georgia," Shevardnadze said. "I allow myself to think that Yeltsin does not know about all this."
Abkhazians claim that their fertile land of tangerine groves and seaside cottages is the cradle of an ancient civilization that predates the Georgians' arrival. The two, with different languages, were independent states before the Soviet Union swallowed both in the 1920s. The Soviet breakup fueled a drive for autonomy by the 90,000 Abkhazians and a Georgian campaign to force such ethnic minorities to assimilate. Last July, Abkhazia's provincial Parliament voted to restore a separate constitution. That prompted the Georgian army to invade Sukhumi, oust the Parliament and burn archives and literature tracing the Abkhazians' origins to a separate culture. Retreating west toward the Russian border, Abkhazia's leaders set up their government in the city of Gudauta, quickly formed a 10,000-man rebel army and fought back--at a cost so far of more than 1,200 deaths on both sides.
Fierce battles involving tanks, aircraft and heavy artillery raged along the Gumista River on the outskirts of Sukhumi.