Chechen debacle highlights Kremlin confusion
August 21, 1996
Web posted at: 6:00 a.m. EDT (1000 GMT)
From Correspondent Steve Hurst
MOSCOW (CNN) -- The disarray in Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin appears to be crystallizing in a series of power plays by different government factions trying to capitalize on the bloody war in Chechnya.
The Russian president had ordered former Gen. Alexander Lebed, the popular national security adviser, to end the fighting in the breakaway republic after rebels retook the capital of Grozny earlier this month.
But after Lebed won a cease-fire in two negotiating sessions in Chechnya, the Kremlin put out orders directing the Russian military to retake Grozny by any means, undoing Lebed's diplomacy.
Lebed, who has run against the grain of entrenched government interests, charges that the order was not signed by Yeltsin himself, but carried a facsimile signature. He also claimed it was issued without consulting him or his agency, even though it was a major security policy statement.
The tough-talking Lebed feels he is being bypassed and measures are being adopted behind his back, a spokesman said. Lebed said the orders "don't make sense" and would thwart his efforts at peacemaking.
He returned to Chechnya Wednesday in an attempt to negotiate a cease-fire for rebel separatists, even as the Russian military command in Chechnya has threatened further action in Chechnya.
As a worried sideline player, the United States has asked for -- and received -- reassurances on Russia's policy in Chechnya and Lebed's initiatives.
A senior administration official told CNN that Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin reaffirmed Lebed's mandate to end the Chechnya debacle in a two-hour meeting Tuesday.
But residents in Grozny did not wait. Thousands of them streamed from the city Tuesday, fleeing in the face of a vow by the local Russian field commander to launch an all-out assault on the city by Wednesday.
Further confusing the matter was the reappearance of Lt. Gen. Vyacheslav Tikhomirov from vacation. He reassumed command of Russian forces in Chechnya from acting commander Konstantin Pulikovsky, who had issued the assault warning against Grozny.
Tikhomirov said his goal was to free Grozny from the rebels but added, "We are ready to use all available means, including both political means and the use of force for this purpose."
Tikhomirov said Pulikovsky's order for civilians to evacuate the city would remain in effect while he examined the situation in the Chechen capital.
Who is calling the shots in Russia is not an easy puzzle to decipher.
Yeltsin has left Moscow for the Russian lake district halfway between the Russian capital and St. Petersburg. His office says only that he is hunting for a vacation spot.
Authorities in Washington believe Yeltsin needs heart bypass surgery. It is not a common operation in Russia and might require Yeltsin to go abroad or be treated by a team of imported specialists.
Yeltsin suffered two heart attacks last year. Aides claim he is resting and just tired from the rigors of the campaign.
But signs are that he is in very poor health. The Russian president has made only one brief appearance in public, a shaky appearance at his inauguration for a second presidential term, since the end of June.
Any conclusion is unsettling. Either Yeltsin is too ill to make decisions which are now being dictated by the military, or he has sided with his generals against the civilians in his government on Chechnya.
The irony is that Lebed is himself a general, placing the military on both sides of an issue that may define the future of both the Yeltsin and Russian government.
© 1996 Cable News Network, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.