The Warrior Who Would Rule Russia: A Profile of Aleksandr Lebed
Jan 1, 1996
Aleksandr I. Lebed remains all but unknown to most Americans. Yet in the summer of 1996, this 46-year-old former two-star general became, literally overnight, one of Russia's most powerful men.
Lebed, who rose to prominence three years ago as commander of Russia's 14th Army in Moldova, finished in a surprisingly strong third place in the June 16 Russian presidential election. This achievement positioned him to swing the runoff election between the two top contenders, Boris Yeltsin and Gennady Zyuganov.
On June 17, Yeltsin appointed Lebed as his national security adviser and Security Council secretary. On July 3, Yeltsin won his second term in office.
An understanding of Lebed's outlook on domestic and international issues can offer insight into the kind of Russia the United States will have to deal with in the years ahead. It makes sense for American and allied defense leaders to get to know as well as possible who Lebed really is and what he represents.
His youth and dynamism, his popularity among Russia's have-nots, and his consuming ambition all suggest that he is likely to remain a prominent player in Russian politics for some time to come.
Lebed's domestic agenda will probably focus on four key problem areas: (1) crime and corruption, (2) the war in Chechnya, (3) the composition and role of the Security Council, and (4) military reform.
With respect to the first of these, he can be expected to try to lend real teeth to the police and to crack down on those former Soviet captains of industry who have since become rich at the expense of the rank and file.
As for Chechnya, he will probably strive to end the confrontation as soon as possible, remove all Russian occupation forces, evacuate any Russian minorities who want to leave, and handle the lingering problem with a more focused and discriminating approach.
Under his tutelage, the Security Council will almost certainly play a more influential role than before in Russia's defense and security policymaking. Lebed has left no room for doubt that he is seeking a broadened mandate as Russia's chief security planner. However, the prospects of his Security Council becoming a bureaucratic juggernaut should not be overstated. The Russian security policy apparatus remains poorly institutionalized, and personal rivals of Lebed's have already begun building political alliances and forming counterbalances.
Military reform is Lebed's strongest suit and the area where he has the greatest chance of making real progress. He has vowed that important posts will no longer be filled by "good old boys," but rather by professionals who can meet the objective test of competence. Lebed may also seek to depoliticize the armed forces through legislation. He has been adamant that the military's sole reason for existing is to protect the country against external aggression, not to take sides in domestic disputes.
It is likely that Lebed will also strive to end draft evasion by sons of the well-to-do, based on the premise that conscription must gather the best of Russia's youth. He maintains that an all-volunteer military entails costs going well beyond Russia's reach and has expressed clear doubts about the feasibility of Yeltsin's campaign promise to end the draft and create a professional army by the year 2000.
Finally, he has promised to downsize the Russian armed forces by a third. He will probably maintain the existing five-service arrangement, at least for the time being. At the same time, he will press hard for increased allocations to defense and will strive to resurrect the military industry.
Internationally, Lebed can be expected to leave his mark primarily in three areas: (1) Russia's security strategy, (2) the disposition of tensions in the so-called "near abroad," and (3) Russia's response to NATO enlargement.
The odds are scant that Lebed will seek to pursue an expansionist policy beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. He understands that Russia lacks the wherewithal to pursue such a strategy, even were it deemed to be attractive in principle. His main concern is that Russia regain its self-respect and be taken seriously around the world. He will take a strong lead, short of confrontation with the West, in nurturing the development and articulation of a security concept for Russia that reasserts the country's status as a global power.
As for the "near abroad," Lebed feels strong compulsions to honor the need for social and political protection by the 25 million Russians living in the former Soviet republics. However, it is unlikely that he will advocate outright coercion toward that end or even pursue lesser means that blatantly violate the sovereignty of the newly independent states. He has admitted that economic integration out of mutual self-interest and a possible confederation among consenting former republics constitute the outer limits of any acceptable Russian effort to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Lebed can be expected to argue for firm steps against any eastward expansion of NATO that does not make a satisfactory offsetting provision for Russia's security concerns and sense of being first among equals in Central Europe. Still, he is the first senior establishment figure in Moscow to acknowledge Russia's limited ability, at least today, to do much about NATO enlargement—beyond complaining.
He has voiced skepticism over Partnership for Peace. However, one concern that might incline him to think hard about the merits of a security relationship with the West is his evident unease over China's ambitions and long-term strategic prospects.
If Lebed can control his ambitions, remain directed and focused, and play to his greatest professional strengths, he has every chance of gaining credibility as a politician and building a foundation for bigger things to come.
Despite some early sharp flashes over the NATO expansion issue and his disdain for what he regards as debased American values, Lebed has shown little sign of an ingrained animus toward the West that would predispose him toward confrontational conduct. Depending on how we approach him, we may find in him either an antagonist or a businesslike, if sometimes difficult, workmate in security affairs.
He could prove nettlesome with respect to the stalled ratification of the START II Treaty, as well as arms sales to pariah states, and he might possibly support a turn to reactionary policies at home. Nonetheless, Lebed has admitted that Russia has little choice but to engage the West. He has also granted that the West has much to offer toward helping integrate Russia into the world as a normal power. There is no prima facie reason to believe he will oppose continued, and even expanded, military contacts with the United States. American defense leaders should test him on this as soon as possible.
All in all, the United States has nothing to lose and perhaps much to gain by reaching out to engage the new national security adviser in a mutual effort to build a mature Russian-American relationship shorn of romantic expectations.
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