Moscow moves to crack down on mutinous officers

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The Independent Online
With Russia's disastrous war in Chechnya now in its sixth week, Moscow has moved to punish dissent within the armed forces, targeting both insubordinate officers on the ground and a senior general who has repeatedly criticised the military debacle in theCaucasus.

Despite evidence of a split within the military hierarchy over the conduct of Russia's biggest offensive action in 15 years, authorities had previously denied reports of widespread insubordination by officers and men sent to crush Chechnya's three-year separatist rebellion.

But, in a sign that the problem has in fact aroused deep unease, the prosecutor-general's office was reported by Interfax news agency to have convenened a meeting on Saturday to consider legal action against unnamed commanders accused of disobeying orders. The head of the Kremlin information department, Sergei Nosovets, was quoted as saying the prosecutor-general would work with military prosecutors to punish mutinous officers.

Such threats, however, may be difficult to carry out, as there is strong opposition to the war within the upper reaches of Russia's military command. The success of any proposed crackdown on dissent will probably depend on the outcome of a power strugglewithin the military between the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, and a big group of powerful critics.

In a move almost certainly linked to this struggle, the Defence Ministry sent a special commission over the weekend to investigate conditions in Russia's 14th Army, stationed in the former Soviet republic of Moldova. Though officially described as a regular inspection, the inquest is widely seen as an attempt to silence - and possibly remove - one of the most vociferous and influential critics of both the war in Chechnya and General Grachev. The commander of the 10,000 Russian troops in the 14th Army isGeneral Alexander Lebed, one of Russia's most popular soldiers and a foe of General Grachev. He has condemned the war as "barbaric" and contrasted the carnage in Chechnya with his own relative success in imposing peace in Moldova's breakaway pro-Russianregion of Trans-Dniestr.

In an interview with Interfax, General Lebed said he would leave his post if ordered to do so but suggested he had no intention of curbing either his tart views of Moscow or his own political ambitions: "I'll do anything for the sake of common sense. Thank God even Moldova and Trans-Dniestr have come to understand that. And it is thanks to common sense that there are cities and villages and not the ruins of Stalingrad on both banks of the Dniestr. Most likely it is common sense that made me popular here."

On the ground in Chechnya, the most public act of dissent came in the first week of the campaign, when Major-General Ivan Babichev, commander of a column of armour approaching Grozny from the west, halted his troops and vowed to go no further. He announced to villagers and journalists near the village of Achkou-Martan that he could not obey orders that he considered "unconstitutional". He was recalled to a Russian command centre at Mozdok but, according to some reports, later resumed his command and too k part in the bloody attack on the centre of Grozny. The commander of a marine unit in the Far Eastern port of Vladivostok is also reported to have disobeyed orders.He is said to have refused to allow his men to be sent to Chechnya.