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Russia: Analysis From Washington - Reading Lebed Right

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 26 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Like so many of his other statements, Russian National Security Chief Aleksandr Lebed's remark yesterday that the Russian military might stage an "armed mutiny" later this fall has attracted enormous attention and generated apocalyptic conclusions in both Russia and the West.

But a careful consideration of the reasons likely to be behind Lebed's latest statement suggests that his words this time, as has been the case in the past, reflect his own political agenda rather than conditions on the ground.

As Lebed told a Moscow newspaper on Wednesday, the Russian army is indeed in sad shape. Many of its officers and men have not been paid for months. Most are demoralized by the defeat in Chechnya. And many are still traumatized by their loss of status at home and abroad since the end of the Soviet Union.

But as a variety of reporting from Russia makes clear, all these statements about the Russian military have been true for some time. And that fact, itself acknowledged by Lebed and other Russian military commentators this week, should give rise to the question: why has General Lebed raised the specter of a mutiny now?

Has something about the Russian army changed? Or has something changed in Lebed's own thinking or political situation?

There is relatively little reason to think that the basic underlying condition of the Russian army has seriously deteriorated recently from what it had been for much of the last several years. Indeed, the miserable conditions in the Russian army over that longer period have given rise to a variety of apocalyptic conclusions that the military might be about to rise up against the political elite.

None of these conclusions have yet proved true. And neither Lebed nor the other Russian commentators such as Krasnaya Zvezda's Aleksandr Golts or the Moscow USA Institute's Aleksandr Konovalov have provided the evidence of a deterioration in the army's status that can explain Lebed's latest prognosis.

Indeed, as has been the case historically, the Russian army has been extremely reluctant to get involved in Russian politics even when political figures have tried to draw it in on one side or another. Consequently, predictions about a purely military action against the Russian state appear to lack the evidentiary support that would be necessary to give them much credence.

But if one examines Lebed's current political position and his all-too-obvious ambition for an even more exalted one, his latest statement appears to be part of his own political campaign rather than a reflection of Russian reality.

There are at least three reasons why Lebed is likely to believe that he will benefit from such remarks.

Calling attention to the situation in the army, Lebed certainly hopes to win the support of the military itself while undercutting that of other Russian political leaders, particularly the ailing President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

In making such a prediction, Lebed effectively presents himself as someone concerned about Russia and Russia's army and as someone who can take care of both. Such a stance could have the effect of causing at least some Russians to forget their anger at him for his recent accord with the Chechens.

By calling attention to an issue that many around Yeltsin have generally been unwilling to face, Lebed clearly hopes to present himself as a leader and a possible successor to Yeltsin should the President pass from the scene.

By doing this now, however, Lebed inevitably generates opposition within the Moscow political elite. But by seeking to win over the army and the army's supporters with this statement, Lebed appears to be trying to put the army in political play, albeit in a different way than his own remarks might suggest.

In effect, the former general is reminding everyone of the importance of the Russian army to Russia and its future and thus implicitly warning his political opponents not to ignore it or him.
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