Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lebed Leaps Into Quagmire

The bloody fighting in Grozny between Russian and Chechen forces dominates the news. After many months, there seems to be no visible end to the carnage, but the surprise visit by former general and present national security tsar Alexander Lebed to the battlefield, where he met with Chechen chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov, has raised fresh hopes for peace. However, these hopes may be ill-founded.

Lebed has publicly criticized the standing state commission on stopping the war in Chechnya, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and has accused almost all the other Russian authorities involved in the war of incompetence. Lebed also demanded sweeping powers to deal with political and military challenges in Chechnya. Lebed has promised new talks and a cease-fire over the heads of other Kremlin officials. It again seems that the political mechanism in the Kremlin is split into the "party of war" and the "party of peace."

Last summer, the media portrayed a very similar scenario: a final showdown between good and evil in the Kremlin, between the "party of war," headed by former defense minister Pavel Grachev and other "bad boys," and the "party of peace," then headed by Chernomyrdin, who was considered a "dove" after talks with Shamil Basayev during the Budyonnovsk hostage crisis in 1995.

Obviously, there are clashes of interests and merciless bureaucratic feuds in the Kremlin. Lebed's attempt to drastically increase his powers and become in essence a viceroy in both Chechnya and Moscow by giving orders to the armed forces and security agencies and dismissing federal officials up to the deputy ministerial level is meeting fierce resistance. And the resistance is coming not just from Chernomyrdin.

High-level Defense Ministry officials also believe Lebed is trying to grab too much power and that this will only hinder Russian efforts in Chechnya. Lebed announced that the general staff of the armed forces should take overall control in Chechnya, giving orders not only to Defense Ministry troops, but also to those of the Interior Ministry and other forces. In turn, the general staff should be subordinate to Lebed as secretary of the Security Council. But the chiefs of the general staff clearly do not want this to happen. They say that the general staff in Moscow is not equipped to give direct battle orders to small units in the field in Chechnya and disrupting the present command structure will only bring more chaos. They say former general Lebed has no personal experience or understanding of how the general staff of the Russian Army operates.

Lebed had pressed president Boris Yeltsin hard to secure the appointment of the former chief of the General Staff Academy, General Igor Rodionov, as Russia's new defense minister. However, this does not mean Rodionov will act as a faithful subordinate and give Lebed unquestionable support at any time.

Rodionov and Lebed have been close political allies for some time, and Rodionov has a high personal opinion of Lebed. But Rodionov is one of the most senior, well-known and respected Russian Army generals, whereas Lebed failed to graduate from the General Staff Academy, Russia's top military school.

Rodionov will be 60 in several months; he has reached the peak of his career and will hardly feel obliged to support Lebed when the young and flamboyant general says something wrong.

Many influential persons in the army, Interior Ministry and Yeltsin's presidential administration believe Lebed is attempting to transform the Security Council into a dominant body working on a "constant" basis, which it cannot do under current regulations. Lebed's critics say that as Yeltsin's representative in Chechnya, Lebed already has been given sweeping executive powers in the region.

But squabbling over political influence in the Kremlin does not mean Russian officials have strategically differing views over Chechnya. Even before the war began, Moscow was offering the Chechens a "special autonomous status similar to that of Tatarstan," just short of full sovereignty. The same proposal was put forward last summer during the peace negotiations in Grozny. However, the Chechen warlords say such a compromise will "make the sacrifice of the Chechen nation meaningless."

Now Lebed says the Chechens have agreed to abandon their fight for full independence and accept autonomy. If this is really so, the war will end. If not, it will continue, no matter who's in charge.

Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security affairs editor for Segodnya.