HE is, according to some observers, the next president of Russia. Or according to others, the next dictator, a Russian strongman who promises a zheleznaya ruka -- an ''iron hand'' -- to deal with the social ills spawned by Russia's flirtation with democracy. He is Alexander Lebed, a straight-talking lieutenant general and Afghan-war hero who commands Russian troops still stationed in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.
Over the last year, media in the region and in the West have featured numerous interviews with the general on a range of topics, from Russian foreign policy, to the fate of ethnic Russians in the ex-Soviet republics, to his own political ambitions. Like radical Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the general always gives good copy. His unequivocal support for purging inept politicians in the Kremlin and his unabashed disdain for the principles of democracy have made a pilgrimage to Lebed's headquarters de rigueur for Western journalists.
With Boris Yeltsin's political future uncertain, Western governments have begun to place bets on likely successors. In the view of many, Lebed is pulling ahead of the pack. Opinion polls have confirmed that, especially within the military, the 44-year-old Lebed is considered one of Russia's most influential figures. Who might emerge in the post-Yeltsin power struggle is still too early to call. But conservatives such as Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, reformers centered around the economist Grigory Yavlinsky, and xenophobic radicals led by Mr. Zhirinovsky could all be overtaken by a leader who places political order before political ideology.
A decorated veteran of the Afghan conflict, Lebed rose to prominence during the anti-Gorbachev coup of August 1991. His cool-headed deception of the plotters and his skillful defense of the White House helped ensure the coup's failure. His close ties to another anti-coup hero, current Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, also guaranteed Lebed a place in the command structure of Russian forces after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 1992, Lebed, whose name means ''swan,'' alighted in Moldova, then in the throes of a violent conflict with pro-Russian separatists. As commander of Russia's 14th army, whose headquarters happened to be inside the separatist ''Dniester Republic,'' Lebed oversaw military operations designed to halt the fighting between Moldovan forces and Dniester irregulars. Lebed is now generally praised for pacifying a conflict that threatened to spill into Ukraine and Romania. What he managed to do in 1992 in Moldova, some Russian commentators argue, he should do today in the Russian Federation.
Anyone who has met Lebed can understand these sentiments. His headquarters in the Dniester ''capital'' of Tiraspol are a paragon of order, a tidy enclave in a city on the brink of economic collapse. To get to the general's office, one passes through a neatly painted courtyard and a phalanx of armed and disciplined subalterns.
For Lebed, disputes in Georgia and Tajikistan -- as well as the current war in Chechnya -- could be quickly resolved were Russia's spineless political leaders to observe what he has repeatedly called ''the Pinochet precedent,'' referring to the military takeover in Chile by Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in 1974.
Lebed clearly has ambitions outside Moldova. But for all his bravado, speculations about his role as a future Russian strongman are misguided.
In the first place, Yeltsin realizes that Lebed has a mean and hungry look. In fact, the Russian president never misses an opportunity to praise Lebed's work in Moldova -- the subtext being that the best place for Lebed is as far away from Moscow as possible. The general, though, is only one of several figures hoping to profit from Yeltsin's political demise. Persons with more experience in Moscow are far better positioned than someone who has spent the last three years stuck on a military compound 600 miles away.
Second, Lebed is both a soldier and a committed Russian nationalist. While these traits make for pithy aphorisms about military honor and Russia's historic mission in its ''Near Abroad,'' they do not make for good politics. He has frequently described Yeltsin and other Russian leaders as incompetent ''minuses,'' antics which have cost him the support of erstwhile patrons in Moscow. He has shown no inclination to forge alliances with figures at either end of the political spectrum. Indeed, his disdain for Russia's current leaders -- regardless of political hue -- has made him a lone voice crying in the Moldovan wilderness.
Army unlikely to aid Yeltsin
Finally, the likelihood of an anti-Yeltsin military coup -- whoever the leader -- is at the moment extremely low. Divisions within the officer corps make coordinated action impossible, and the powerful Presidential Security Service (Yeltsin's personal guard) and the Federal Counterintelligence Service (a successor to the KGB) keep a watchful eye over the machinations of military personnel. Moreover, the 1991 coup, the 1993 parliamentary crisis, and the war in Chechnya have all illustrated that lower-level officers and soldiers on the ground are loath to engage in operations against civilians.
Lebed's real importance lies in what he represents. The Chechen crisis has exposed the incompetence of top military planners, the ineffectiveness of Russia's armed forces against a determined foe, and the moral bankruptcy of a president who uses the indiscriminate bombing of urban areas to boost his approval rating.
These facts weigh heavily on the minds of Russia's officers, and Lebed simply says what many now think: that during the next political imbroglio in Moscow, the military will not be on hand to save Yeltsin's goose.
In October 1993, the Yeltsin leadership worked hard to persuade military leaders to take sides by supporting Yeltsin against the parliament. The payoff for the military was supposed to be Yeltsin's commitment to restoring the honor and efficiency associated with the former Red Army. So far, however, Yeltsin has done little to live up to his end of the bargain.
Thus, the real danger for Yeltsin lies not in the possibility of a politicized military, but in precisely the opposite: the refusal of the officer corps to come to his aid during the next political crisis.
Lebed's vocal denunciations of Moscow-style politics and the bungled Chechen operation indicate that, next time around, the military may be reluctant to rescue a government that offers little in return.