Top Russian military and political leaders continued yesterday to devote their tactical planning skills at least as much to winning political skirmishes in the Kremlin as to resolving hostilities on the ground in Chechnya. The most aggressive sally on the Kremlin battlefield came, not surprisingly, from Aleksandr Lebed’s Russian Security Council, which issued a statement expressing skepticism about the authenticity of Boris Yeltsin’s latest orders on Chechnya. (See Monitor, August 20) The statement declared that the "contents of the documents provide solid ground to doubt that [Yeltsin] took direct part in finalizing the text of the order." It also charged that Yeltsin’s orders were accompanied by only a facsimile of the president’s signature, and insisted on an explanation "from the appropriate officials" for this alleged discrepancy. The presidential press service responded with a volley of its own later in the day, saying that the order was indeed consistent with Yeltsin’s wishes and, in essence, telling the Security Council to drop its objections. (Reuter, Itar-Tass, August 20)
Some Russian commentators warned against making too much of the Kremlin in-fighting. Segodnya defense analyst Pavel Felgengauer, for example, called the apparent intrigue a "high-stakes poker game" in which Lebed and army hard-liners are deliberately playing "good cop and bad cop" in an effort to break the Chechen resistance. Felgengauer and others also suggested that Yeltsin, as he has done in the past, was absenting himself from the Moscow proceedings in order to avoid responsibility for what are likely to be unpopular policies in Chechnya. (Reuter, August 20)
Felgengauer’s last observation has the ring of truth. But if, more broadly, this is a game primarily of intrigue that Kremlin insiders are playing, then it is indeed a dangerous one. Even aside from mounting displeasure with Moscow’s military operations in Chechnya, there has been intense concern in foreign capitals since before Russia’s run-off election over Yeltsin’s health and the possibility that there is, in fact, a leadership vacuum in the Kremlin. The latest developments are turning that concern into consternation. At the same time, one newspaper reports that the personal confrontation between Lebed and Internal Affairs Minister Anatoly Kulikov has been transformed on the ground into a virtual "Cold War," in which MVD commanders in Chechnya check with their superiors before carrying out orders from the Security Council secretary. (Kommersant-daily, August 20) That observation hints at the corrosive effects that the public bickering among Kremlin leaders over Chechnya could have on Russia’s already demoralized and — according to several recent reports–increasingly disgruntled military forces.
Lebed not yet in Chechnya as Russian Command Looks Poised to Storm Grozny.