For at least a year, the question of who runs the Kremlin has overshadowed Boris Yeltsin's presidency as health problems drove him out of the public eye for long periods and powerful aides jockeyed for power.
But seldom has the answer mattered so much and so urgently as yesterday in Grozny, Chechnya.
In a highly public test of his authority, Russia's security chief Alexander Lebed flew to Chechnya Wednesday and forced the commanders of Russian forces there to stand down from their ultimatum to launch an all-out attack and bombardment of Grozny. The threatened attack aimed to oust Chechen rebels who took over the city 17 days ago.
Yesterday, after Mr. Lebed's intervention, the threatened attack was stopped, and Lebed once again personally jump-started negotiations with the rebels over the disengaging of troops.
Talking with rebel chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov, Lebed negotiated a partial withdrawal of troops by both sides from Grozny and a tentative structure for monitoring the agreement.
Estimates vary as to how many tens of thousands of civilians remained in Grozny - some of them lying in hospitals or otherwise unable to extricate themselves - but the civilian casualties would clearly have been high if the attack had gone forward.
For the moment, Lebed has established his authority and reasserted his effort to negotiate peace rather than carry on the so-far futile effort to defeat the Chechens militarily. It will take at least another week, according to military analyst Dmitri Evstafiev, to see whether Lebed has established more than momentary authority.
Yeltsin's shadowy role
Perhaps the most mysterious role in this week's high drama was played by President Yeltsin. He returned to the Kremlin yesterday and met with candidates for cabinet appointments, according to his press office. He gave an interview to the state television news service, his first appearance since a brief Aug. 9 appearance at his own inauguration. The day's activity was enough to dispel the most dire rumors about his health. He was at least up and about his work in the Kremlin.
In the battle for authority over the Chechen forces, Yeltsin never clarified which side he was on - although orders he issued Monday evening undercut Lebed's diplomacy to the point that Lebed's security council challenged their authenticity.
Neither Yeltsin nor Lebed has outlined in any detail exactly what powers Yeltsin signed over to Lebed last week to resolve the Chechen crisis. The text of the decree has not yet been published. So it is not clear technically whether Lebed had the authority to countermand the ultimatum from commanders in Grozny. Except for whatever specific powers the decree may contain, Lebed's formal authority consists of being a popular retired military officer with an advisory post as a Kremlin aide.
In Grozny yesterday, Lebed said, "No one has given anyone any powers. You simply have to take it, as I am quietly doing. We have to restore a single command structure."
Most of Lebed's actions in the past two weeks can be explained as an effort to establish a clear chain of command on Chechnya, with himself at the top, answering only to Yeltsin.
In the past, Yeltsin himself has had trouble making his orders stick with commanders in Chechnya. Many commanders are cynical about negotiated agreements, which give rebels the opportunity to regroup, and have confidence only in displays of force that push the rebels, however temporarily, back into the mountains.
The troops in Chechnya are roughly split between the Interior Ministry militia forces and the Army, under the Defense Ministry. They answer to a joint command appointed directly by the president. The setup has aggravated a traditional rivalry between the Interior and Defense Ministries. Lebed now has a loyal ally as defense minister, whose appointment he lobbied for heavily.
The fault line in this rivalry appears to have fallen between Lebed and Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov.
This may explain why Lebed savagely attacked Mr. Kulikov in a press conference last week for "criminal" mismanagement and failure to defend Grozny against rebel takeover. He gave Yeltsin a public ultimatum to choose one or the other, an ultimatum that Yeltsin rejected.
Ironically, when Lebed organized a clear structure of command Wednesday morning, just before leaving for Grozny, he put Kulikov in operational control, answering directly to Lebed.
Lebed may simply be adapting to the reality that he must work with Kulikov. Or some political analysts here speculate that he may be positioning someone to blame if his diplomatic forays in Chechnya collapse.
A political balancing act
As for Yeltsin, he may also be cutting his risks on a very difficult problem by letting Lebed make or break his own career on it.
Yeltsin has a well-established mode of governing by balancing off appointees against each other. He brings competing political forces and interest groups into his administration, then acts as a sort of referee, keeping one group from dominating the others.
Diplomats and political strategists here generally see Yeltsin playing this sort of balancing act now with Lebed.
If Lebed's command structure is successful in Chechnya, notes Mr. Evstafiev, then he may use it in his nationwide battle against corruption.