Or should blame lie with one of the Chechen war's most vociferous critics, the former prime minister, Yegor Gaidar?
Whoever is to blame, the ugly and bitterly personal debate displays the full extent of disarray within Russia's ruling elite, and foreshadows a long and brutal struggle to apportion responsibility for a conflict that has already cost the lives of hundreds of Russians and many more Chechens.
Particularly ominous is the fact that among those pointing an accusing finger at General Grachev is President Boris Yeltsin's own military adviser, Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov. One of Russia's most respected soldiers, Marshal Shaposhnikov served as the Soviet Union's last defence minister, then as military commander for the Commonwealth of Independent States, and more recently as a senior Kremlin aide. In an interview published yesterday by Izvestia, Marshal Shaposhnikov suggested the current defence minister had made a string of disastrous decisions.
Most damning is his claim that General Grachev issued an order soon after taking over as defence minister in May 1992 that allowed Chechnya to keep half of all the arms left on the territory by the Soviet army.
According to Marshal Shaposhnikov, the suggestion of a 50-50 division of weapons with Chechnya was first raised while he was defence minister. This was at the end of 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart and the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, declared unilateral independence from Moscow. But Marshal Shaposhnikov said he rejected the proposal, and had tried to bring out as many weapons as possible.
While Moscow never recognised Chechnya as a state, it confronted much the same dilemma there as in Georgia, Azerbaijan and other former Soviet republics whose new independence it did acknowledge.
Izvestia, in a separate report yesterday, claimed that not even the 50-50 division, allegedly authorised by General Grachev, was ever implemented, and said the vast bulk of arms stockpiled in Chechnya during the Soviet period by Russia's 12th Motorised Infantry Division had been left behind. This was said to include 45 tanks, 40,000 automatic weapons, 153 heavy mortars and cannons, 130,000 grenades, 55 armoured troop carriers and 18 Grad rocket launchers.
It quoted a Major C, who had served in Chechnya, as describing complete chaos in Russia's Grozny garrison at the end of 1991 and 1992: soldiers fled, discipline collapsed and only a handful of officers were left to try to protect a vast arsenal from an increasingly aggressive Chechen government.
Russia's official government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, yesterday painted a similar picture. It quoted another former Russian officer, named as Senior Warrant Officer Mikhail M, as saying an airlift of arms out of Grozny had been attempted in June 1992 but had been blocked by supporters of the Chechen leader. He estimated that less than a quarter of all Russian weapons were ever removed from Chechnya.
"I think those to blame are top military commanders," said another former officer. "They had to withdraw equipment when it all began. It was technically possible. Now we have to answer for those mistakes."Reuse content