- Chechnya - Dagestan - Ingushetia - Russia
At one-tenth the size of France, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Chechnya together represent a tiny fraction of Russia's huge landmass.
They may be small, but they are a huge and painful thorn in Moscow's side.
These tiny North Caucasian republics of the Russian Federation are the scene of daily acts of violence. On Monday, 20 people were killed in a suicide attack on an Ingushetia police station.
In June and July, at least 55 members of the federal Russian administration were killed in Ingushetia and neighbouring Dagestan — almost as many as for the whole of 2008.
And as the region becomes increasingly unstable, Moscow seems increasingly overwhelmed by the deteriorating situation.
"Moscow has shot itself in the foot with its policies in the region," Svante Cornell, of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at John Hopkins University, told FRANCE 24.
In Chechnya, the "tacit" agreement between then Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in 2007 was particularly counter-productive, he said.
Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch said: "Kadyrov was given carte blanche to pursue a policy of all-out repression with little regard to human rights and the rule of law."
The result is a smokescreen behind which "suspect" people — and even their friends and family members — have been abducted, tortured and killed, fuelling a strong sense of outrage and longing for revenge in the local population.
Fertile ground for insurgents
In the neighbouring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan, Moscow has followed the same model of vertical power, installing its preferred candidates in power, with less than glorious results.
"Dagestan is one of the most corrupt republics in the Russian Federation," said Lokshina. "State services in Ingushetia simply don't exist."
All this makes the region fertile ground for insurgent groups, which are composed essentially of Islamist jihadists and function as organised crime gangs.
The authorities' reaction has been to consider all Muslims to be potential insurgents and to pursue them mercilessly.
Local tribal disputes, some going back hundreds of years, muddy the water even further. Dagestan contains a mix of almost 40 different ethnic groups, which only adds to the sense of unending civil friction.
"All the elements are there for the North Caucasus to descend into a situation like Afghanistan," said Cornell.
Oil prices and regional stability
All that was needed was the spark to set off the powder keg. According to Cornell, the price of oil is at the heart of Russia's problems.
"The financial crisis has had an impact," he said. "For Moscow, the price of oil determines how much it can invest in creating a veneer of stability. Right now, Russia's coffers are running low."
Lokshina sees a similar correlation between economic stability and growing unrest.
"A year ago we saw a big influx of young men, aged between 17 and 19, joining the jamaat in Chechnya," she said, referring to Islamist groups. "They can't take any more of Kadyrov and have no sense of a viable future for themselves."
At the same time, there has been a significant rise in violence in Dagestan and Ingushetia. Moscow has lost the financial means to sponsor its veneer of stability.
The general consensus is that Moscow needs to intervene as quickly and decisively as possible to bring back order.
"Putin needs to show that Moscow is in control," said Cornell. "But three of its republics are in rebellion. If you can't control your own borders, how can you be taken as a great power?"
But Moscow seems to be hesitating. Three months after Ingushetia's President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was badly hurt in a suicide attack, the central Russian authorities have yet to name his successor.