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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Checkered Career of Loyal Kremlin Soldier

General Pavel Grachev, one of the great survivors of post-Soviet Russian politics, whose political demise had been the subject of so many false predictions as to make him seem invulnerable, was finally prised out from behind his desk at the Defense Ministry on Tuesday, a casualty to President Boris Yeltsin's re-election campaign.

It is not yet certain that Grachev, the longest serving and also probably the most unpopular member of Yeltsin's government, has gone for good. Defense Ministry sources, quoted Tuesday by Interfax, said Grachev could be appointed Russian ambassador to NATO in Brussels.

Pavel Felgenhauer, defense and national security editor of the daily Segodnya, also said he was sure another job would be found for Grachev in a month or two, providing Yeltsin is re-elected.

But the long-expected sacking is a clear turning point for a man who many analysts believed was so powerful and knew so much that Yeltsin was afraid to alienate him.

As recently as last month, the last time speculation about his dismissal filled the media, Grachev himself said darkly that his removal would cause "rumbles" in the army, where all senior officers "are my people."

But Felgenhauer said that in sacking Grachev, Yeltsin had showed who was boss.

"Yeltsin had much more on Grachev than Grachev on Yeltsin -- malpractice, misappropriation all along the line," he said. "Yeltsin could fire him any time he wanted. It was purely a matter of political expediency, choosing the right time with the greatest political gain."

Loathed by Russia's democrats, who charged him with corruption, incompetence and failure to reform the army, unpopular among troops and officers who blamed him for botching the war in Chechnya, Grachev, 48, nonetheless had one thing going for him at least until Tuesday -- his loyalty to Yeltsin.

Whenever the knives were out for Grachev, Yeltsin was there to defend him, once describing him as "the best defense minister that Russia and the Soviet Union has ever had."

Grachev's loyalty goes back to the putsch of August 1991, when as commander of Soviet paratroopers, he saved the day for Yeltsin by refusing to obey large-scale embezzlement by members of the Western Group of Soviet Forces in East Germany. The issue was shelved after the dramatic events of October 1993, when Grachev once again took Yeltsin's side, ordering his tanks to bombard the recalcitrant parliament into submission.

It was that act of loyalty more than anything else that ensured Grachev's political survival, providing him with virtual immunity against his critics. Grachev was able to dodge the backlash when the corruption scandal reignited in the fall of 1994, following the murder of Dmitry Kholodov, a Moskovsky Komsomolets reporter who was investigating the case. Grachev survived, despite the disgrace of the former Western Group commander, Colonel-General Matvei Burlakov.

Grachev, however, was tainted by the scandal, largely due to a single-handed crusade by Moskovsky Komsomolets, which was eventually sued by Grachev over an article entitled: "Pasha Mercedes: A Thief Should Be in Prison, Not Serving as Defense Minister?" Grachev won the case, but the nickname "Pasha [Pavel] Mercedes" stuck.

The biggest blot on Grachev's career was the grotesque mishandling of the war in Chechnya. While Grachev cannot be held responsible for the decision to start the war in the breakaway republic, he was from the outset a champion of the "party of war," boasting in November 1994, a month before the troops were sent in, that with a regiment of paratroopers, he could take the capital Grozny in two hours.

By late January 1995, Grozny had indeed been taken, but only after weeks of bitter fighting, during which hundreds of raw, untrained conscripts were sent to their deaths. Senior military officers raised a chorus of complaints against Grachev, blaming him for poor planning which they said had led to the high casualty rate.

Grachev might have had good reason to regret his words, but apparently not a bit of it. In a television interview he declared that "18-year-old boys have been dying for Russia; they have been dying with smiles on their faces."

As the blunders of the Chechen war continued, the pressure mounted against Grachev. After the Budyonnovsk hostage-taking crisis of June last year, he offered to resign, but was kept on by Yeltsin. The cracks in the alliance between the two men only began to appear in April this month, when Grachev voiced his opposition to Yeltsin's plans for a peace settlement in Chechnya and cast doubts on the president's proposals to bring in military reform and end the draft.

These statements brought a fresh wave of predictions that he was on the way out, with the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta even going as far as to name the date of his removal, which it said would be announced on Victory Day, May 9.

In the event, Grachev survived until Tuesday, brought down by the man he effectively drove out of the army, retired general Alexander Lebed.