War and peace - why Lebed matters

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The Independent Online
Just minutes before the announcement of Alexander Lebed's dismissal, a leader of the separatist rebels in Chechnya made an ominous prediction. If Mr Lebed were to be sacked, said Aslan Maskhadov, the war there would flare up anew, causing more casualties in a conflict that has already claimed the lives of more than 30,000 people in 22 months.

This is only one reason why political events in Russia are so important to Britain and the rest of the world. Russia's military crackdown in Chechnya in December 1994 cast long shadows over the West's relationship with Moscow.

Western governments were encouraged that Mr Lebed, during his brief spell as President Boris Yeltsin's security boss, made a genuine effort to secure a political settlement. But if Mr Maskhadov is right, and the war resumes, it is very bad news.

Mr Lebed's dismissal matters also to us because we have an overriding interest in political stability in Russia. It is, after all, the world's largest country, and it possesses thousands of nuclear weapons.

If Russia is unstable, the reverberations are felt all over the globe. Unfortunately, since last June, when Mr Yeltsin appointed Mr Lebed and then disappeared from public life because of his heart problems, Moscow has been in tumult and ceaseless political intrigue in the Kremlin has hindered progress in Western-Russian relations.

Three items stand out, the first of which is Nato's planned enlargement into central and eastern Europe. The second is Nato's proposal for a formal charter defining its relationship with Russia. And the third is the US-Russian Start-2 nuclear arms reduction treaty, which the Russian parliament has yet to ratify.

So peace in Chechnya and better, more secure relations with the West depend partly on stability in Moscow. We cannot know yet whether Mr Lebed's dismissal will make things more stable, or suddenly and sharply worse. But with Mr Yeltsin about to undergo heart surgery, Mr Lebed now free to campaign openly for the succession, and a conflict still rumbling in Chechnya, the outlook is not promising.