Alexander I. Lebed, Russia’s audacious security chief, flew to the breakaway region of Chechnya on Wednesday to try to avert the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the Chechen capital, Grozny, if Russian generals carry out a threat to bomb the rebel-held city into submission this morning.
Lt. Gen. Konstantin B. Pulikovsky, acting commander of the Russian forces who are fighting separatists in Chechnya, disrupted a peace process started by Lebed last week with his own ultimatum Tuesday for the separatists who have held Grozny since Aug. 6 to get out of town in 48 hours or face a deadly assault.
The latest Chechen crisis also has disclosed a paralyzed, leaderless Russia, with the ailing President Boris Yeltsin absent from duty, political leaders - apart from Lebed - apparently unable or unwilling to stop the army bosses and no one quite sure who is running this vast nuclear superpower.
Only Lebed sounded certain his peace moves still are on track. “We will no longer speak the language of ultimatums,” he told reporters in the southern Chechen village of Noviye Atagi, where he met Chechen chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov after holding brief talks with the Russian generals at their base, Khankala, on the eastern edge of Grozny.
“We will resolve this problem by the morning. … We will be guided by humaneness and reason,” added Lebed, a popular former general with a mandate from the Russian president to negotiate an end to the 20-month war.
But it remained unclear whose orders the 40,000 Russian Defense and Interior Ministry troops based in Chechnya would obey today: those of Lebed or their own generals.
Confusion reigned in Grozny, where terrified, elderly refugees stumbled out of their cellars and ruined homes on foot through an afternoon of Russian shelling and airstrikes. They tried to save themselves from the threat of even more deadly bombing in the morning.
Political chaos has also come to Moscow since Pulikovsky started his 48-hour countdown. Despite a storm of protests, threats and pleas, no one in a position of authority has clearly reversed him and ordered him to stand down from his plans. His boss, Lt. Gen. Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, rushed back from vacation Wednesday night. But he quickly made clear he backed Pulikovsky’s plans for more war.
Defense Minister Yuri N. Rodionov, a Lebed ally, said Wednesday that Pulikovsky had been acting on his own initiative when he issued his ultimatum and had been “reprimanded.” But he did not cancel the order.
Boris V. Gromov, the respected general who led the Soviet army home in the mid-1980s after years of disastrous war in Afghanistan, said only Yeltsin had the power to stop the “mindless and gruesome bloodshed.”
But Yeltsin was nowhere to be seen. His office first said he was out of town inspecting a possible vacation site at Valdai, then said he would be back at work in the Kremlin on today.
Meanwhile, Yuri Belenkov, director of Russia’s top cardiology complex, denied new rumors circulating here that the president, who suffers from heart disease, had been admitted for treatment.
“The inactivity of the organs of power and the highest political figures is giving the military complete freedom of maneuver,” commented the authoritative newspaper Izvestia.
Pavel Shumyatsky, a senior official of the liberal party Democratic Russia, observed that, “There are early symptoms that the army, or at least the forces concentrated in Chechnya, are becoming an independent political force.” Sergei N. Yushenkov, a liberal lawmaker, observed that, “The situation is favorable for a new coup; we are on the brink of military dictatorship.”
Pulikovsky’s ultimatum came after Yeltsin’s staff issued confusingly worded instructions, which they said came from the president himself, to restore the situation in the Chechen capital to what it had been before Aug. 6.
“Either this means the military are trying to carry out the impossible order of the president - to restore order in Chechnya as it was before Aug. 6 - or it means the military have stopped obeying orders. In either case, the authorities are paralyzed,” Izvestia added.
Pulikovsky, who was visibly resentful at being forced to negotiate ceasefire details with Maskhadov last week, may, indeed, have interpreted the confusing instruction from the presidential office as a go-ahead to attack.
But Lebed’s office suggested Wednesday that Yeltsin had not written the instructions at all, pointing out that the presidential signature at the bottom was only a facsimile. Yeltsin’s office, in an unsigned statement published by Itar-Tass news agency, insisted Lebed was wrong.
Lebed, seen as a strong candidate for the presidency next time round, if he masters the rapier thrusts of Kremlin politics, has put his political life on the line with his high-risk peace bid for Chechnya. His blunt approach has already alienated courtiers from many camps and earned him a host of powerful new enemies.
Returning from a first round of talks in Chechnya, he offended the Russian military by heaping scorn on the underpaid, unmotivated, “lice-ridden weaklings” of Russian soldiers he had seen guarding checkpoints in Chechnya, and said Russia could not afford the luxury of war.
Map of Chechnya
MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition