The tough-talking diplomacy of new Russian security chief Alexander Lebed is on the brink of unraveling into full-scale war again in Chechnya.
Mr. Lebed decided Aug. 20 to make his third trip to Chechnya Aug. 21 to try to seize control of events in the shattered separatist republic and restore peacemaking efforts.
The acting commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, Gen. Konstantin Pulikovsky, says that he is finished negotiating with the rebel forces and has asked Grozny residents to evacuate the city center by the morning of Aug. 22 in preparation for a large-scale Russian assault aimed at driving the Chechen separatists out.
Such an assault would destroy even more of the pulverized city and risk raising the casualties on both sides to new magnitudes. It would also risk shredding any credibility left to Mr. Lebed's peacemaking foray.
On Aug. 20, Lebed raised the stakes further in his bid to assert control by questioning President Boris Yeltsin's own control of events. Lebed's Security Council questioned the authenticity of orders Mr. Yeltsin had issued Aug. 19. Yeltsin had ordered Lebed to produce a plan for peace in Chechnya within a week and to restore law and order to the Chechen capital of Grozny, which has been occupied by rebels since Aug. 6.
"The possible consequences of the prescribed moves obviously threaten to disrupt the talks on a peace settlement ... launched by Lebed," the Security Council's statement said.
It was this Yeltsin order, interpreted to mean that the rebels should be ousted from Grozny, that may have brought Russian-Chechen negotiations to an end Aug. 19 and led to General Pulikovsky's threat to attack Aug. 22.
The general was negotiating with Chechen rebel chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov over the most substantive new step Lebed had achieved - the agreement of both sides to a joint commission to monitor cease-fire violations. Every cease-fire so far has crumbled over mutual allegations of attacks by the other side.
But the Chechens say the agreement over the commission was scuttled Aug. 19 when the Russian side added a demand that the rebels vacate Grozny. Some analysts, such as Pavel Felgengauer of the Moscow daily newspaper Sevodnya, say that Yeltsin's order to restore law and order requires that demand.
The Russians say the talks also broke down when Chechens demanded that Lebed himself sign for the Russian side. Russian spokesmen said that this demand was unacceptable because it put Mr. Maskhadov on the same level as Lebed, the presidential envoy to Chechnya.
One fundamental snag that has undercut Lebed's efforts is the apparent divide among Russian officials in how they view the Chechen rebels. While Lebed speaks of them respectfully as legitimate warrior-opponents, many other Russian military officials hold them in contempt as "bandits" and "medieval barbarians."
Lebed sees the Chechen separatists as legitimate negotiating partners, while many Russian officers do not. While Lebed has broken new ground in negotiations with Chechen leaders in the past 10 days, talks have broken down after being taken over by Russian commanders.
LEBED compares Chechnya to the nine-year Soviet catastrophe in the 1980s of fighting in Afghanistan. He notes that Russia's 38-year war with Chechens in the 19th century ended when the leader of the independence forces, Shamil, was captured and became an honored member of the czar's court. Pulikovsky, on the other hand, vows he will clear Grozny of "brazen and barbaric actions of illegal groups" with bombers and artillery. His warning sent new streams of refugees flowing out of the already depopulated city.
Most troops in Chechnya are interior militia troops. Lebed has publicly accused Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov of "criminal" failure to carry out his duty to defend Grozny.
Lebed gave Yeltsin an ultimatum to choose between them. Yeltsin told Mr. Kulikov to stay and, through a statement, asked Lebed to make a "reasonable" case for who was at fault for letting Grozny fall to the rebels.
The permanent commander of Russian forces in Chechnya is not Pulikovsky. Gen. Alexander Tikhomirov, an old colleague of Lebed's, occupies that post, and he will return from leave shortly.