Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 56

Aleksandr Lebed, the Russian general turned presidential contender, completed an eleven-day visit to the United States on March 20 during which he questioned President Boris Yeltsin’s fitness to manage Russia’s nuclear arsenal. In remarks made on March 19 before a House subcommittee, Lebed suggested that the Russian president is too erratic to be trusted with Russia’s nuclear button. The retired general also warned that Russia’s nuclear weapons specialists are poorly paid and increasingly receptive to offers from terrorist groups and governments around the world. "These unique experts are seeking their fortune around the world," Lebed said. "They will do what they can do and the world will face the problems of nuclear terrorism or nuclear blackmail."

Lebed also told lawmakers that the greatest threat to Russia’s domestic security comes from "political instability, economic crisis, corruption and crime, [and] separatist leanings in the provinces." Lebed suggested that, under such circumstances, the West is unable to count on Moscow as a reliable partner. But Lebed also told lawmakers that, despite its many problems, Russia is nevertheless capable of playing a bigger role on the world stage and that Moscow could provide "actual assistance in solving various international problems." (UPI, March 19; AP, March 20)

A spokesman for Lebed said that the retired general’s trip to Washington had been sponsored by Russian organizations, but provided no details. Lebed was invited to speak before the U.S. subcommittee by Representative Curt Weldon, a Republican from Pennsylvania, who also chaired the hearing. In addition, Lebed met privately with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senator Richard Lugar, and attended a private dinner sponsored by the American Foreign Policy Council. Lebed reportedly had no meetings at the White House or the State Department. Russia’s U.S. Embassy, obviously displeased with Lebed’s presence, made clear that the visit had been a "private" one. (AP, March 20) The Russian NTV network observed that Lebed was well received by those with whom he had contact in Washington. NTV also noted to its Russian viewers that Lebed was seen in the United States as a man who could be Russia’s next president, rather than as a candidate for governor of Krasnoyarsk krai. (NTV, March 20, 22)

Cooperation with Moscow in the safeguarding of Russia’s nuclear weapons arsenal has been one of Washington’s highest priorities. Lebed’s highly derogatory description of Yeltsin’s performance in this area — a description substantiated to some degree by Yeltsin’s genuinely erratic behavior — seemed designed to suggest that the West might be better off looking for a new partner in Russia. Lebed’s intimation that Moscow might play a constructive role in solving international problems seemed to have the same object. It comes against a background of deepening discord between Washington and Moscow on a number of issues, including policy toward Iraq, Iran and, most recently, Yugoslavia.

What is considerably less clear is whether, from Washington’s perspective, Lebed offers anything better. The retired general’s own statements on various foreign and security policy issues have been anything but consistent. Moreover, remarks that he made last fall — alleging that the Kremlin couldn’t account for a large number of "suitcase" nuclear bombs–raised as many questions about Lebed’s political maturity and integrity as they did about Moscow’s control over nuclear weapons. (See Monitor, September 8 & 26, 1997)

Summit Moved from Urals to Moscow.