Grozny's fate; Russia's destiny

Click to follow
The struggle for control of Russia and the fate of tens of thousands of sick, marooned and frightened people were last night intertwined as shells started to rain down on the battered city of Grozny.

Even before the attack they had grimly promised for the Chechen capital had started, Russian field commanders were openly defying their own Defence Minister and the head of the country's Security Council, Alexander Lebed, by bombarding civilians.

Their readiness to do so underlines the rift in Russia's armed forces. It is particularly dangerous because of the confusion that has engulfed the government of Russia. The immediate battle for control over policy in Chechnya has become part of the long-term struggle for power in the Kremlin.

The reason for the power struggle was highlighted by the absence "on holiday" of President Boris Yeltsin, and perplexity about whether he approves of the attack. With several of his top officials at each others' throats, Mr Yeltsin was last night due to fly back from what his staff said was a brief break in the countrysidebut which many suspect had more to do with his heart trouble than normal relaxation.

Anxious to dispel the impression he is losing control of his administration, Mr Yeltsin's aides said he would be back at the Kremlin today. If so, he will find himself face-to-face with the biggest political and military crisis to hit Russia for months.

His return coincides with the expiry of the deadline set by the acting commander of Russia's forces in Chechnya, General Konstantin Pulikovsky, who on Monday declared plans for an all-out bombardment of Grozny in a bid to win it back from the control of Chechen rebels.

Apart from the human cost of his strategy, it flew in the face of the conciliatory strategy of Mr Lebed, the President's envoy to the war zone.

Yesterday the Defence Minister, Igor Rodionov, aligned himself with Mr Lebed, his benefactor, by condemning the ultimatum. He said Gen Pulikovsky - who has lost a son in the war - had acted without his knowledge, and had "been given a dressing-down", adding that "someone provoked Pulikovsky into making the threat".

But murky allegiances seem to be forming in the absence of a clear lead from the top. Gen Pulikovsky was supported by the man in overall charge of Russian forces in Chechnya, Lieutenant-General Vyacheslav Tichomirov, who, after returning from holiday, resumed command with the assertion that the 2,500 rebels holding Grozny would "not live to see further warnings from me". Agency reports from Grozny last night said buildings were already alight in parts of the city.

Even if today's all-out bombardment is postponed, the issue has exposed the vast gap that now separates the more hardline generals - who are determined not to lose face and who cling to the illusion that the rebels can be crushed - from Mr Lebed and his supporters, who know that the only way forward is a negotiated settlement. And, although the Russian military has long been a hotbed of dissent, the split is highly damaging.

Yesterday Mr Lebed travelled to Chechnya and agreed a ceasefire with the rebel chief of staff, Aslan Maskhadov. Mr Lebed that said he would stop the Russian army from carrying out its threat to start bombing Grozny.

He also described the ultimatum to bomb Grozny as "a bad joke" and said that he had given an undertaking "never again to give the Chechen side ultimatums".

If Mr Lebed succeeds in getting the ultimatum lifted, it would win him huge applause from many liberal Russians, who have been horrified by their generals' latest antics. However, the hostility of senior Russian officials is a serious stumbling-block.

As Izvestia wrote yesterday: "Today's formula is this - federal troops are not fighting against the separatists. They are fighting to prevent Lebed winning the laurels as the tamer of the Caucasus."

But the crisis has also exposed an alarming paralysis at the top of the Russian government. Astonishingly, it remains unclear where Mr Yeltsin stands on the assault plan. There is some evidence that he favours it, having issued an order to Mr Lebed to restore Russian control in Grozny to the level of 5 August - the day before the rebels stormed in.

But, in a move which is tantamount to admitting that the President is no longer in charge, Mr Lebed has strongly implied that those orders came not from the President, but from a clique in the Kremlin who are determined to prolong the war, and are willing to forge the presidential signature to do so.

Mr Yeltsin's absenteeism aside, the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, has remained aloof, even when Mr Lebed demanded the sacking of one his most senior officials, the Interior Minister, Anatoly Kulikov, last week. And Anatoly Chubais, the President's chief-of-staff - the last official to see any presidential decree before it reaches Mr Yeltsin himself - has been nowhere to be seen.

Grozny flees, page 10

Kremlin at war: The men creating the power vacuum, and those trying to fill it

Boris Yeltsin - ill, exhausted, and completely out of touch. Aides say he's flying home, after a trip to the countryside for a break while his government falls apart.

Alexander Lebed - in Chechnya, desperately trying to find someone to obey his orders as the head of the Security Council, and stop the planned bombardment of rebel-held Grozny.

Viktor Chernomyrdin - keeping his head below the parapets of the Kremlin and saying nothing. Lebed is a future rival for the presidency, so Chernomyrdin is happy to watch him squirm.

General Igor Rodionov - the newly elected Defence Minister is standing loyally by his friend Alexander Lebed and opposing the Chechen war. But his generals are not paying any attention to him.