In a matter of days, Russia's new national security chief Alexander Lebed has overcome apparent Kremlin resistance to win sweeping personal authority over the armed forces and ministries of the Russian government.
His newly concentrated powers are for resolving Russia's civil war in Chechnya, which has escalated in the last 10 days into Russia's most pressing and urgent problem.
Yesterday, Mr. Lebed took this new clout to Chechnya, his second trip there in a week, to try to negotiate a cease-fire and work out a diplomatic resolution of the 20-month conflict. The outcome of his efforts could make a huge impact on Russian politics.
"If Lebed stops the war, he will be the next president of this country," says Andrei Piontkowsky, a political analyst here. This possibility puts democratic-minded reformers and other potential presidents - such as Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin - in an ambivalent position, says Mr. Piontkowsky. They must hope Lebed succeeds in ending a corrosive and so far utterly futile war, he says, "but they don't want to create a czar."
Yesterday, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin named most of the Cabinet ministers and other senior officials who will make up the government for the second term of President Boris Yeltsin.
The makeup of the government reflects a strengthening position for liberal or centrist democrats. The stock prices of leading Russian companies rose 7 to 8 percent after the new Cabinet was announced.
Also, one of the last remaining allies of the so-called party of war in President Yeltsin's entourage, Oleg Lobov, was demoted after already being replaced on Saturday by Lebed as presidential envoy to Chechnya.
Lebed's strong new profile in the government fits the new pattern in the government's organization, Mr. Chernomyrdin said yesterday in announcing the changes. "The main ideological principle in the formation of the government is the concentration on key points, in key directions, and an increase in personal responsibility" of senior officials. "Chechnya is our first problem, and everybody will work on this problem," he said.
In the past 10 days, tens of thousands of refugees have scuttled out of the Chechen capital under fire and heavy loss of life in what has been a humiliation of the numerically far superior Russian forces. Since the war began in late 1994, at least 30,000 people have been killed, the vast majority of them Chechen civilians.
The decree outlying Lebed's powers had not been publicly released yet, as of yesterday. On Monday, Lebed said he was asking Yeltsin for the power of command over military forces in Chechnya, operational control over the activities of all Russian agencies in Chechnya, the authority to oversee and police the disbursement of funds intended for reconstruction of Chechnya, and the authority to hire and fire government officials in all ministries and departments whose work touches on Chechnya up to the level of deputy minister.
Yeltsin's press office issued a much more vague and mild-sounding summary of his powers, but Lebed's own press secretary says he will control all strategic and political decisions in settling the crisis, and that his orders are binding on all federal agencies.
The political talk in Moscow is that the gruff general has been riding high but will take a fall in his sparring for power against the black belts of bureaucratic judo - Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin's Chief of Staff Anatoly Chubais.
But the deadly futility of the war in Chechnya seems to have pushed past such resistance. Yeltsin delayed a day, then on Wednesday granted Lebed the powers he sought. The same day he dissolved the Chechnya commission headed by Mr. Chernomyrdin, which Lebed had criticized as passive and ineffectual only two days before.
Lebed's lightning quick first foray into diplomacy ran into the same snags of military resistance that earlier cease-fires have encountered. It then evaporated into confusion. Russian military officers see the separatist rebels as using cease-fires to regroup their forces. So in the past the Russians have simply redefined their operations to match the terms of cease-fire orders, but in a way that allows them to continue fighting.
Lebed ordered the acting commander of Russian forces in Chechnya to meet with the rebel chief of staff to work out terms of disengagement of forces. After more than a day of delays, they met Tuesday evening. The rebels said that the two commanders agreed to a cease-fire at noon Wednesday. The Russian military spokesmen denied it, then said that their troops were under orders only to return fire. The Chechens too ordered their fighters not to initiate any attacks or firefights - an order the Russians acknowledge they heard go out on intercepted Chechen radio transmissions.
The result was recriminations on both sides. The Russian commander told of Chechen snipers breaking the cease-fire and killing and mutilating Russian soldiers. The Chechens accuse Russian helicopters of attacking a convoy of refugees and killing 29 civilians just a few minutes after he cease-fire went into effect.
Lebed says that he and the Chechen chief of staff both agreed that some of their forces would be difficult to control in a cease-fire. The fighting did at least go into a lull on Wednesday.
Lebed has announced many contradictory positions on Chechnya in recent months, but he has now committed himself to a diplomatic rather than a military solution. This will not be popular with the military, which sees peace without success as surrender, says Piontkowsky. Lebed's natural ally, Chernomyrdin, is also his chief rival to be the next president.
So Lebed has practically no allies and a lot of enemies, says Piontkowsky.
Nor is Lebed wary of making more. He promised yesterday in Chechnya that on his return to Moscow he would hold a press conference to name names of those who deliberately allowed the current Chechen takeover of central Grozny to occur. "This operation was planned beforehand and the Chechen war is a contract and commercial war," he said.