Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 2

Interview: General Lebed on the Army & the Kremlin

The following is an excerpt from an exclusive Prism interview with Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Lebed, commander of the 14th Russian Army, and possible candidate for the presidency of the Russian Federation.

Prism: General Lebed, more than once you have criticized Defense Minister Pavel Grachev. Several other well-known generals have refused to obey his orders. Does a danger exist that there will be a split in the Russian Army?

Lebed: The fate of my country and its army is dear to me; therefore I always honestly and openly express what I think concerning what is taking place in the country and in the army. This may please some and displease others, but it is my constitutional right. I do not get involved in criticism for the sake of criticism; I only try to declare what I see to be the consequences of particular decisions. For example, the minister of defense has declared that so-called mobile forces have been created. Where are they? Why weren’t they used in Chechnya? The answer is simple: all the declarations of the minister about military reform remain on paper. The Russian army now holds out on what remains from Soviet times. I don’t see any constructive development yet. The army is threatened today not by those who condemned the Chechen adventure and refused to participate in it, but by those who actively use this adventure to resolve domestic political conflicts. That and that alone threatens the army with a split.

Prism: Do tensions exist between the army and units of the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service?

Lebed: There are no open contradictions. Although I should mention that the pay in the Interior forces is higher than in the army and, to put it mildly, this upsets many army officers. More significantly, this difference in pay is an indication of which force structures are more important for those in power. Never was the Russian Army so neglected and mistreated by the regime as it is today. This inflicts harm not only on the security of the country, but on the security of the authorities who have not thought much about this aspect of things.

Prism: What do you see for the Russian army in the future?

Lebed: It will occupy a worthy place in society and will fulfill honorably its functions in guaranteeing national security. The geopolitical situation of Russia requires it to have a well prepared and equipped army. I do not exclude that the Russian Army will be integrated into the international military-political system, a step that would dramatically strengthen international security. Moreover, we should remember that the Russian army always was an inalienable component of the Russian state. Our army was always strong in those historic moments when its actions were inspired by generally recognized state interests, and its leaders were people who were able to combine military tactics with an understanding the character of the people. The first major military reformer of Russia, Skopin-Shuyskiy, the father of our victories over Polish interventionists and over the Swedes during Russia’s first time of troubles, achieved his successes precisely because he combined these two aspects of leadership better than anyone else in his day.

Prism: There are rumors that [Defense Minister] Grachev has proposed that you become minister of defense in Tajikistan.

Lebed: Yes, such proposals were made at the same time that Grachev wanted to reform the 14th Army. I considered such a proposal to be incorrect in the extreme, particularly as it involves a sovereign country. A Russian officer who was recommended for such a post besides all the other legal formalities would have to sign two contracts: one with the ministry of defense of Russia and the second with the government of Tajikistan. I rejected this proposal immediately because I consider myself a citizen of Russia and I serve its interests. Had I accepted, I would have suffered a loss of standing among my subordinates. And I will not trade this authority even for a minister’s portfolio.

Prism: Has the politicization of the army threatened its future?

Lebed: Undoubtedly. If a governor does not want a regiment to be stationed on his territory, that will not take place without politics. I do not think that this is correct. For the problems of the army are the problems of the state. At present, the authorities deal with the army not on the basis of considerations of the state interests but rather on the narrow basis of economic calculation. The collapse of such an enormous organism as the Soviet army cannot fail to entail serious consequences, and history confirms this. Thus in 1917 the ten million man Russian army disintegrated and look what happened! If the Russian army dies, the Russian state will die as well. I am so categorical on this not because I am a general. The history of all countries and peoples shows that policy is good only when it has the necessary corresponding force to carry it out.

Prism: Hasn’t the army, out of a sense that it has been misled by pseudodemocrats who promised to resolve all its problems, completely given up on the democratic idea and begun to look at those who are openly fascist?

Lebed: Relations in the army must be built on the basis of the military code. Even in democratic states, the military forces exist and operate by their own strict laws. I am categorically opposed to using the army inside the country for the resolution of political problems and conflicts. If one sides tries to use the army this way, a time will come when another side will try to do the same. There cannot be a double standard in the use of the army within the country. The army is the core of the national security of the state. The entire international order rests on that principle.

Prism: Judging by the events in Chechnya, the Russian army now is not at its best. Has the much promised reform done this to the army or is it simply a matter of not having enough money.

Lebed: Reforms have been declared, but they have not taken place. First of all, for reforms, one needs money, and there isn’t any. In 1995, we asked for 85 trillion rubles, the sum needed for normal existence. We were refused. We asked for 57 trillions, the absolute minimum. And we were given only a little more than 40. Virtually all construction and development has stopped. New forces are not being organized. All the signposts of military reform have been torn down, and what remains is only the illusion that we have done something. But the absence of money is not the only cause. The defense ministry has not done its job even within the constraints of the budget. And many commanders have not done what they need to do either. Moreover, military reform must be an all-state affair; it cannot be confined to the defense ministry, particularly this one, and yet the higher authorities refuse to get involved.

Prism: Do you think there is a real threat of a revolt within the armed services of Russia?

Lebed: I would assess the probability as 50-50. If the necessary measures that would guarantee the army a normal existence are taken, there will not be a revolt. The leaders or the country must understand that the army is tired out from their empty promises to resolve social problems. Moreover, things are getting worse throughout the society. State norms of the past have been destroyed without new ones being created. If the crisis in society coincides with the crisis in the army, the Kremlin walls will not save anyone. Those holding power today ought to remember that.

Prism: How would you react to such a revolt?

Lebed: Decisively, although I do not want to discuss this theme in detail.

General Lebed was interviewed for Prism by Moscow News military correspondent Aleksandr Zhilin. Reproduced above are excerpts from the interview on the subject of the Russian Army’s relationship with the Russian government. The Russian-language text of the entire wide-ranging interview may be obtained by contacting the Jamestown Foundation.