WASHINGTON -- When gruff Gen. Alexander Lebed was here earlier this winter, this man who remains the most popular presidential candidate in Russia seemed to be the man in charge of every moment. He knew where he was going; he knew where Russia was going.
Only once did I see him flinch in three revealing meetings. It was when I asked him how important were the growing militias in Moscow and elsewhere. Today, nearly every bank and big business, and even Boris Yeltsin's "dacha," has its own armed militia.
Obviously disturbed by the question about the 40,000 militiamen generally used to protect the old dacha crowd, he said, "Well, the number of 40,000 is exaggerated ... Maybe there are 1,200." He paused, then said, "but it is not for the army to combat such militias. The army should stand with its back to the country and its face toward the borders."
When faced with the parallel reality of the Russian military weakening, and perhaps even collapsing, Lebed was on completely solid ground. "The breakup is very serious," he told me, "and if the process is not stopped in the near future, the army may become completely politicized -- and then a spark will be enough to explode everything."
Since Lebed's interesting trip here, the once-proud and potent Russian military has fallen into an ever deeper abyss. Officers have been committing suicide, one after one, rather than face the disgrace that they see before them. (Moscow's Ministry of Defense reports there were 430 suicides during the first eight months of 1996 alone.) Training has virtually halted everywhere, soldiers go hungry and without shoes, and the Kremlin recently insulted the armed forces with instructions to "protect the environment," instead of preparing to fight.
But if Lebed is a kind of native Cossack truth-teller in those worlds of Kremlin falsifications, it is not only about the troubled status of the Russian military. When he spoke of China, for instance, it was not in the "new grand alliance" terms generally emanating from Moscow.
Instead, Lebed spoke directly and critically about China's hostile intentions in Russian Siberia. "They have a policy of infiltrating their population into the thinly populated areas of Siberia," he said. Then, with an ironic grin: "It is a similar picture as to California and other American states -- or am I mistaken?" He shook his head vigorously, then added surely, "No!"
Gradually, it is sinking through to more and more Russian analysts that Russia is far from the power it still wants us to believe it is. Enders Wimbush, former director of Radio Liberty in Munich and one of our most realistic Russian scholars, wrote recently about the supposed, and indeed much-touted, "Russian/Chinese rapprochement." Far from playing the old "Eurasian hegemony," he wrote recently, Yeltsin's apparent diplomatic offensive with China is "mostly smoke and mirrors intended to disguise the serious deterioration of Russian power and the disintegration of the Russian state."
He goes even further than Lebed -- and even further than the always historically sensitive Russia/China border (with its inviting emptiness on one side, and its hordes on the other side) -- and asks, "What will become of the Russian Far East?" He cites the Russian press saying that "the concern that this region will be overwhelmed by Chinese is increasingly evident."
Wimbush has traced how Russia's once carefully controlled southern borders with the Caucasus and Central Asia have been fraying, as the new nations -- from former Soviet Georgia and Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- are suddenly no longer in the Russian sphere of influence.
"Where Moscow was once the imperial center for the republics that became the 'new states,' today Moscow is part of the latter's distant periphery," he says. "Meanwhile, the new states are rapidly building new relationships -- and new strategic possibilities -- in the east, south and west, which are redefining their historically subordinate relationship to Russia."
Meanwhile, who should turn up in Washington again, this very inaugural week, but ... Alexander Lebed! And in a dinner jacket, which he wore to an inaugural ball.
While Lebed was here for the second time in just a little over a month, he engaged again in discussions on a military subject that is nearly as important as the collapse of the Russian military: the expansion of NATO up to the borders of Russia. Lebed was even more amenable toward NATO than on his first visit, calling for a dialogue with the West, for cooperation and for work toward "common goals."
So, behind the apparent ongoing conflict between the United States and Russia over military expansionism and despite all the dangers, if we look at what is behind the facade, we can see that events are slowly beginning to work themselves out. Russia is NOT going to link up with China and Russia is NOT going to re-rule such critical areas as the Caucasus and Central Asia. And if a talented and reasonable man like Alexander Lebed comes to power, we will face a new Russia that could offer a good deal of rationality and thus hope.
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