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The Wars of Aleksandr Ivanovich Lebed

ALEKSANDR LEBED, the Russian peacemaker who has devoted his life to war, is rushing to Chechnya again, eager to conclude talks with his separatist adversaries and to end the searing conflict that his boss, President Boris N. Yeltsin, has summarily dumped in his lap.

A dense summer fog seizes the ground as Lebed, a 46-year-old retired army general, arrives at the main Government airport just outside Moscow. Surrounded by a squad of paratroopers, Russia's controversial security chief heads straight for his plane. The weather has already caused the flight crew some worries and now the pilot suggests a short delay. Just 10 or 20 minutes, he argues, until he can see a few more feet down the runway.

''No waiting,'' Lebed growls, as always hurling his words in a voice so deep–and so deeply unsettling–that bolts of lightning seem certain to accompany them. Lebed has already emerged as the presumed favorite to succeed Yeltsin in 2000 (if not sooner), and the Russian people have grown accustomed to his manner: the blunt, almost simian face; the chesty gait; the cigarette permanently smoldering in its ivory holder. But it is his voice, and his pattern of speech, that marks him. At once gruff and epigrammatic, it is the unlikeliest blend of curt platitude and cutting insight: Vince Lombardi meets Oscar Wilde.

''We are leaving now,'' he says, without an ounce of doubt. Nobody argues. Within five minutes Lebed is airborne, sitting in a private cabin in the front of the state airliner not far from Doku Zavgayev, the man the Kremlin installed as the puppet leader of Chechnya, the mutinous southern republic that Russia had been at war with for nearly two years. There are few men Lebed (pronounced LEH-bid) detests as passionately or as openly.

''Why would you fly with Zavgayev?'' I ask the general as the flight clears the misty airfield. ''You say you hate him.'' Lebed permits a sly smile to creep across his battered features.

''How else are we going to force the little coward to be in the place he is supposed to govern?'' he says, clearly delighted at the question. ''At least this way he will spend some time in Chechnya.''

It had been a tense season–for the country and for Lebed, the man to whom Yeltsin had granted full, unconditional powers to stop the war that has turned Chechnya into a blood-soaked battleground. The war, which started in 1994 when Russian troops invaded the republic, had left as many as 80,000 dead. The devastated regional capital, Grozny, had become a smoking ruin. And Russia, whose soldiers were often forced to beg for their food, had been left humiliated, enervated and desperate for peace. With Yeltsin nearly incapacitated and his future ability to govern clearly in doubt, Lebed quickly filled the vacuum–appearing before the public far more often than any other Kremlin official.

Polls in Russia rarely agree on anything, but on Lebed there has been telling unanimity. An obscure general just two years ago, he is now more than twice as popular as any of his potential rivals for the presidency (see box, page 46). With people suddenly acknowledging the grim possibility that the nation might soon be forced to choose a new leader, Lebed's name tops every list.

But to cement his popularity and prove he can deliver something more significant than titillating rhetoric, first he would have to find some way to free Russia from a grinding war that this summer took its worst turn yet.

In early August rebel fighters stormed into Grozny, killing hundreds of Russian soldiers and wounding many more. By the time Yeltsin took the oath of office for his second term on Aug. 9–an election he won partly by promising to end the war–the separatists had taken Grozny back and the Russian Army was in full retreat from the capital it had destroyed in order to conquer.

Russian generals, watching their army suffer a historic defeat at the hands of Muslim guerrillas, went nearly insane. They promised to bomb what remained of Grozny to dust. As hundreds of thousands of civilians fled the flaming wreckage, Lebed appeared in the region and announced that there would be no more ultimatums and no more bombs. Through sheer force of will, and plenty of pounding on the table, he managed to deliver on his word.

Lebed returned to Moscow expecting his President to embrace him and support the fragile truce he had somehow cobbled together. He was wrong. As hours turned into days it became clear to Lebed and his aides that Yeltsin would not see him–probably wouldn't even speak to him. The peace process looked to Yeltsin and others in the Kremlin a lot like a Chechen victory, a capitulation for Russia. That was something that Yeltsin, who started the war largely to prove his resolve, could hardly accept. At first Lebed was incredulous at the snub, and then he grew furious. ''We are going back,'' he told his senior aides, when he realized they were waiting in Moscow for nothing. ''Let's go finish the job.''

As his plane floated through the thin clouds hovering over the north Caucuses the stakes for Lebed–who has said he fully expects to succeed Yeltsin as President–were high and he knew it. The country was praying for peace, but nobody wanted to acknowledge that it would come only in defeat. With the mountaintops swirling into view on the way to the giant Russian Army base at Mozdok, Lebed's chief aide, Vladimir Petrov, a short man in a black business suit, suddenly burst through the door of the cabin and breathlessly read a statement.

''We have received reliable information from the ground in Chechnya that people there are planning the physical annihilation of Gen. Aleksandr Lebed,'' he said, as his stunned audience strained to hear over the roar of the jet engines. ''These are people who do not want the negotiating process in Chechnya to proceed. We do not believe that it is necessarily the Chechens who plan this action. It is not the first time there have been threats like this. It will have no effect on the work before us.''

Suddenly the paratroopers snapped into action. Each pulled six grenades from the pockets of his flak jacket. Meticulously, but with speed, they unscrewed the plastic safety caps and replaced them with quick-release pins. Then they began slapping ammunition clips into their automatic weapons.

The plane began its final approach. Flying into one of their country's biggest and best-protected fortresses with the man in charge of the Russian military, the soldiers rapidly scanned the tree line for signs of danger.

On the ground the paratroopers tried repeatedly to hustle Lebed into a waiting helicopter and away from potential assassins. But the general was out of Moscow now and wouldn't listen. On the tarmac everyone was in motion. Everyone but Lebed. He just stood there, folded his thick arms across his shoulders and took it all in. Then he laughed and lit a cigarette.

Aleksandr Ivanovich Lebed was happy. He was in his war now.

AFTER THEIR TEMPESTUOUS AND sordid century, most Russians passionately crave peace and they certainly are due for some. But few actually expect it. Still, after Boris Yeltsin swept triumphantly to re-election this July, vanquishing his Communist opponent–and to many minds defeating Communism itself–there was perhaps more reason for optimism than usual. Most prominent among Yeltsin's many campaign promises was his pledge to end the war in Chechnya.

Romancing the pathologically outspoken, frankly nationalistic Lebed had been among Yeltsin's cleverest maneuvers. Lebed ran for president mostly on charisma, an image of blunt honesty, a commitment to ending the war and a vague platform of national honor. When Lebed came in a strong third behind Yeltsin and the Communist Gennadi Zyuganov, Yeltsin bought his support with the promise of power. When the President selected Lebed as his national security chief and virtual running mate, it looked as if the hated civil war in Chechnya could finally end.

But calm never did settle on the Kremlin. There was to be no immediate respite from Russia's war, or the frightening instability that has haunted the nation. Yeltsin, who pushed himself wildly on the campaign trail this spring, had all but collapsed because of his damaged heart by the time he won re-election. Between July 3, Election Day, and Sept. 5–the day he announced that he would submit to desperately needed heart surgery–the President appeared in public twice, and each time it was clearly a struggle.

In his absence the Kremlin descended into the type of intrigue and incoherence that has kept it a famously obscure seat of power for 800 years. Control of the Government fell to an unwieldy triumvirate. Lebed and the stolid, statesmanlike Prime Minister, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin–his most obvious presidential rival and the man officially charged with running the Government in the President's absence–immediately began sniping at each other. Anatoly B. Chubais, Yeltsin's chief of staff and the man with the most access to the President, quietly worked to weaken them both.

The daggers were drawn at once. In his first act after winning re-election, Yeltsin consolidated much of the nation's still-formidable security apparatus and placed it under Lebed's command. He then issued an edict granting Lebed special authority to attack crime and corruption in Moscow. Chernomyrdin fumed. That day and the next, in what many took to be a Mafia response to the appearance of Russia's new Eliot Ness, bombs ripped through Moscow trolley buses during the morning rush hour. Chernomyrdin, obviously galled by his new rival's authority, announced immediately that he, not Lebed, would take personal control of the investigation.

''It was pathetic,'' says Col. Mikhail Bergman, long a close associate of Lebed's. ''You would think a prime minister would have something else to do.'' That wasn't the only attack, though. Chubais–who during the campaign was the first to see the wisdom of reaching out to Lebed–began to belittle him in public. When Lebed started talking about problems with the Russian economy and suggesting Yeltsin name him vice president, Chubais said Lebed's ambitions were the ''serious mistake of a novice state leader'' and noted acidly that there were many ''shortcomings regarding the balance and profundity'' of his public statements.

''They are trying to isolate Lebed and make him look like a hick,'' says Leonid Radzikhovsky, a liberal political journalist who worked as Lebed's principal speech writer during the presidential race. ''Yeltsin took the country's biggest problems–Chechnya and corruption–and handed them to Lebed and disappeared. It's a good trick. They expected Lebed to fail. They want Lebed to fail. But they don't understand who they are dealing with. Aleksandr Lebed doesn't just thrive on adversity. He needs it. He would die without it.''

ASSURED AND CONFIDENT ON HIS own limited turf, Lebed can be astonishingly insecure in other situations. ''We were shocked to see how he reacted to the President,'' said a Clinton Administration official who asked not to be named, describing Lebed's participation in a round-table discussion with Bill Clinton on his last trip to Moscow. ''We were expecting a big, confident, assured man. He hardly spoke. He didn't know where to stand. He had trouble even making eye contact.''

Lebed has been a full-time politician for less than a year, and he is obviously a work in progress. Describing himself as a ''semi-democrat'' with no particular aversion to authoritarian rule, he appealed in the election to voters who were repulsed by the personal excesses of the extremist leader Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky but still believed in much of what he said.

It is always hard to know, however, in what direction he is moving. In September, after the United States missile attack on Iraq, Lebed issued a typically sardonic statement. ''This is the essence of democracy,'' it said. ''You send in the planes to drop the bombs. Then you gather the journalists and tell them to applaud. We need to study that.'' Days after it became apparent that Yeltsin would be idled for months by his illness, Lebed announced that the army was near ''mutiny'' and that he ''had a plan'' to save the country but no ''powers to implement it.''

Lebed is neither shy nor subtle. In the past year he has attacked the ''Pepsi-generation mentality of America'' and called Mormons ''scum.'' Although he has a surprisingly strong relationship with the Jewish community in Russia, he shocked the West shortly after he joined Yeltsin's administration by ridiculing a Cossack representative at a nationalist conference in Moscow for sounding ''more like a Jew than a Cossack.'' The remark caused the general so much grief that he retreated immediately. The next day he sought the help of a rabbi in Moscow, who arranged for Lebed to meet with a correspondent from The New York Times, to whom he vigorously and repeatedly apologized.

Lebed never raises his voice; he doesn't have to. He is not a clown like Zhirinovsky. He does not drink–almost inconceivable for a Russian man. The mere sight of his cold glare is enough to make men cower. He has shown in writing, in speeches and above all in his actions that if Russians truly seek a leader with a strong hand, they have found their man.

''I was suddenly indignant,'' he once wrote about soldiers who had disobeyed his orders by hazing some recruits. ''The leader of the group took it in the jaw and grew quiet, having slid along the floor into the corner. Across him fell his first deputy. On top, next to and on the side of them, nine more of them fell. Only one turned out to be strong. I had to hit him twice.''

It's not exactly diplomacy, but it gets the message across.

BORN IN 1950 IN THE SOUTHERN Russian Cossack town of Novocherkassk, Aleksandr Lebed was a tough guy from the start. Not bad as a student, but not particularly eager to hit the books, Lebed excelled instead at boxing and chess.

Like Boris Yeltsin, his working-class roots have defined him. In fact, his life is in many ways an eerie echo of the President's. Both had fathers who were imprisoned cruelly for nothing during Stalin's purges. Lebed's was sent to a labor camp for twice coming late to work. Five minutes each time. Yeltsin's was sent away after complaining meekly about canteen food. Both men grew up as true believers in Communism and later found another path.

Yeltsin rose as a champion of the people, a man who had the tenacity and courage to speak truth to superiors who were fueled by lies. He passed up limousines for highly public rides on the Metro. Lebed did the same, and even rented a room in a residential hotel while running the 14th Army in Moldova. Today he and his wife have a three-room apartment in Moscow, just like any working family. He has three grown children.

Like Yeltsin, Lebed is happiest when fighting the establishment from the outside. While Yeltsin became famous for criticizing the status quo as Moscow party chief, Lebed carried out his attacks mostly on the corrupt army he served.

Like Yeltsin, Lebed is a loner. ''I am a cat who prowls alone,'' he wrote in his autobiography, ''I Pity the Great Power.'' Lebed doesn't like to talk about what happened in his hometown in 1962, when security troops opened fire on workers protesting wage cuts there. More than 70 people were killed and the massacre was kept secret for years. Lebed saw much of it.

''When the shooting started he and his brother were sitting on the top of the tallest tree in front of our home,'' his mother said earlier this year. ''The tree was as old as our city. I was at work at the time. When their grandmother got there she locked them in the house and told them not to move.'' Nobody really knows how much the boy was affected by learning at the age of 12 that his Government would slaughter scores of innocent people without a second thought.

Lebed's voice has been described as resembling anything from the rumble of artillery to the sound of a fast record played at a slow speed. He acquired it the way he got most of his distinguishing features–his nose, his legs and other parts of his body that have been broken (including his spine and bones in his face). His mother said he jumped into a street brawl one day as a teen-ager and was injured so badly in the neck he needed an operation. ''When the surgeon got done, his voice was changed forever,'' she said.

Far from minding, Lebed has always enjoyed the image of himself as a brute willing to rise to any challenge. ''I learned early that a man should only be a little bit more handsome than a monkey,'' he has written, ''and that his real merits are not measured on a pretty face.'' Good thing.

He wanted desperately to be a pilot but failed every medical exam. Then he settled on becoming a paratrooper. His father told him to try it first, and he did. Lebed went to a local airport, bribed a guard with six bottles of vodka and on his first jump broke his back.

That hardly stopped him. For more than 20 years Lebed has appeared wherever Russians were fighting and dying: Afghanistan, Baku, Tbilisi, Moldova. With distinction and frequent acts of heroism he commanded a battalion in Afghanistan in 1981, and the experience convinced him that the Soviet Union was about to collapse under the weight of its own deceptions. By 1988, when he rose to head the elite Tula paratroop division, he found himself deployed in many of the dying nation's ethnic battlegrounds.

In 1991, Lebed refused to storm Moscow's White House during the abortive coup, and Boris Yelt sin hailed him publicly as a hero. As is the case today, democrats tried to claim the square-jawed general as their own. He wanted no part of it, though, insisting he was always ready to do his duty. But the duty was hard to find. At one point during the coup, unable to locate his battalion, General Lebed said he had to make a call from a pay phone to headquarters and was told to call back in 15 minutes for instructions.

''Comrade Commander, you know that I am ready to carry out any order,'' he says he told Gen. Pavel S. Grachev, at a point when his commanding officer appeared to be following orders to prepare an assault on the White House. ''But I must understand its meaning.'' Although courted by both sides, Lebed remained aloof during Yelt sin's attack on Parliament in 1993.

Lebed's story–plain man with an instinctive sense of honor–works magic in Russia, where patriotism and a little brutality are always respected. Yeltsin had much the same rough-hewn image in the early days before the autocrat within him overcame the democrat who defeated the Soviet Union.

''He is out there alone, obviously doing what nobody else would do,'' says Dmitri Rogozin, the leader of the Congress of Russian Communities, a political party he founded to promote the rights of ethnic Russians stranded in the countries of the former Soviet Union. ''He is fighting his own Government and his own army. It is an incredible thing to watch.''

A CAREER OFFICER until 1995, when he was driven from the army after his outspoken condemnation of Grachev, who was then Defense Minister, Lebed has spent his life moving between the garrison and the battlefield. Until recently he was revered by nationalists who saw in him a proud and often bloodied defender of the fading notion of mighty Russia. But his flagrant opposition to the Chechen war also delighted progressives, who were often appalled by his other views.

''Aleksandr Lebed scares me but I am convinced he is the only man who can bring peace to Russia,'' says Andrei A. Piontkowsky, director of Moscow's Center for Strategic Studies, a liberal research organization, enunciating a familiar theme among intellectuals. ''He is a man who believes in war, a man who says many foolish and dangerous things. But he has always been willing to speak the truth about Chechnya and the truth about Russia.

''I don't like him. I don't feel comfortable with him. God knows I dread the day that he becomes president of my country. But the war is ruining Russia. So right now I support him with all my heart, and each day I pray for his success.''

Nobody else in the nation elicits such endorsements from his enemies. Few get that much support from their friends. But no other Russian politician right now–certainly not the enfeebled President, his Prime Minister or the widely hated Chubais–has such an uncannily intuitive feel for what the people want to hear. And not since Yeltsin himself first emerged as the great democratic hope of Russia has there been a politician with such personal appeal.

During the presidential campaign Lebed was so popular–and communicated such a dazzlingly vague, mixed and often contradictory message–that he became the only man among the 10 candidates to appeal to voters from both sides of the ideological and generational divide. It wasn't just Yeltsin who felt the need to seek his support after the first round. The Communists were so desperate to have him on their side they even offered to make him prime minister if their leader, Gennadi A. Zyuganov, became president.

Lebed's popularity is not hard to understand. Russians crave a strong leader and value a blunt man. The general, who fits both bills, became this year's poster boy for the disaffected masses. A hearty symbol of the might Russia no longer possessed, he presented himself as a man who could bring order to a country that constantly seems as if it is on the verge of chaos. Lebed has promised a holy war on corrupt bureaucrats–a war most Russians scraping by on meager and often unpaid salaries would like to see fought to the death.

Lebed ran for Parliament last year and most people expected him to carry his party to triumph. The party bombed, although he won his own seat. Other candidates might have sulked. Lebed just shrugged, discarded the positions he suspected were hurting him and a couple of weeks later announced that he would run for president.

''He is no democrat, but he is also certainly not a dictator,'' says Radzikhovsky, himself a former member of Parliament. ''He is actually something simpler: a genuine Russian officer trying to make chivalry part of the political process. He is like a Tolstoy character, a man from a different age. He is honestly looking for the truth, and he doesn't know where to find it. Cynical politicians laugh at him for it. But it is hard not to be charmed.''

The biggest fear most Westerners have about Lebed is that he could become an erratic dictator in an unstable country with 27,000 nuclear warheads. Lebed has tried to calm those fears lately. He said recently that if Yeltsin became unable to serve, then Chernomyrdin would of course have to take over, ''because it's written in the Constitution and when you go against the Constitution you go against freedom.'' When Yeltsin did temporarily transfer many powers to his Prime Minister, he did so soon after Lebed publicly demanded it. That wasn't enough for the general, though. Lately, Lebed has come close to saying what he obviously believes: that Yeltsin should resign.

He also wavers wildly on other topics. A year ago, Lebed suggested that the planned expansion of NATO envisioned by the United States could lead to World War III. That has changed. ''If they want to expand, let them waste the money,'' he says, slipping an ever-present Camel into a cigarette holder. ''Let us be realistic. Who is Russia going to fight now? We are a poor country. We have nothing left to fight with.''

It is quite a statement from the country's chief security official, a man who believes that Russia is divinely destined for imperial greatness, and one whom critics have likened to a modern Napoleon. Only a man who has spent his life in uniform could get away with it.

''He has been on every side of every issue,'' says Sergei Kovalyov, Russia's leading champion of human rights and perhaps the only Chechen war protester as prominent as Lebed. ''You can find anything you are looking for in his statements. That was also true of Lenin, by the way. So with General Lebed, we have no idea, really, whether he is changing position or lying about it when he takes a stand. And I am afraid that when we do find out it could be too late.''

IT IS INDEPENDENCE DAY in Tiraspol, the capital of the Trans-Dniester Republic, and a large and docile crowd has gathered in the brilliant sun to watch tanks and artillery pieces roll triumphantly across the city streets. Defense Minister Stanislav G. Khazheyev, a short man with epaulets, lots of medals and dictator's sunglasses, is shouting his speech into an ancient, tinny microphone.

''We must remember what it took to return our motherland to its people,'' Khazheyev says, as half a dozen helicopters sweep by, each trailing the red-and-green flag of the quasi-independent, six-year-old republic. ''We must remember that the people and the army are one, and the stronger the army the stronger the people.''

There are few more pathetic stage-set versions of the Stalinist past left on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Hammers and sickles are chiseled into nearly every wall, adorn every flag, hover on huge medallions over each heavily guarded building.

Trans-Dniester, an easily forgotten sliver of earth dominated by Slavs and wedged between Ukraine and Moldova–where people speak Romanian–made Aleksandr Lebed a famous man in Russia. The Soviet Union had just disappeared and Moldova became one of the many new nations eager to shed, and spit upon, its Soviet past. Lebed had other ideas. It was here that his name became an icon for nationalists and a symbol for the defense of Russians at all costs. Using the same combination of bluster and force that stopped the bombing in Chechnya, Lebed demonstrated for the first time his unparalleled gift for ''pitying the great power,'' as he put it in his autobiography.

''His secret is simple,'' says Maj. Nikolai N. Melnitsky, who served with Lebed not just in Tiraspol but in several other places where Russian military might was called in to protect the disappearing status quo. ''He believes in force and he believes in realism. He will use whatever the situation requires.''

By 1992, when Lebed took command in Tiraspol, hundreds had died in the fighting and the Russian 14th Army was at a loss. It was a time when ethnic rage, no longer checked by the firm hand of Soviet power, was spreading rapidly across the land. He wasted no time restoring order, imposing strict curfews and rigid rules, and brokered a peace agreement between warring Russian separatists and the new Government of Moldova, which he called ''fascist.''

Admired widely by his troops, who universally called him Papa, he became a rare symbol of military vigor in a depleted and disheartened army. More important, he became one of the most forceful and effective champions of the millions of ethnic Russians marooned in new and often inhospitable lands across the former empire by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

''I cried the first time I heard him speak,'' says Grigory Sherbochenko, a 50-year-old Cossack who fought here throughout the grim battles of 1992. ''Lebed arrived and he went on the radio. At that point we were afraid we would be wiped out. He told us that the war was genocide against us and that as a Russian officer he would never allow it.''

The impression that Lebed single-handedly saved the day in the republic is not quite accurate. But it is universally held by the Russian-speaking majority here, something that drives the leaders of this corrupt, shadowy republic to distraction.

''Name a place where Aleksandr Lebed, the great Russian savior, has made a difference,'' says Vadim Shevstov, the much-feared head of the Trans-Dniester K.G.B. ''In Baku? No. In Georgia? No. During the putsch of 1991, no. Here, no. In 1993 he did not know whether to defend Yeltsin or bring him down.

''The Russian people love a savior. We are dreamers. But Lebed did nothing here but come and try to run this place. When he saw that he could not, he decided we were 'bandits' and he was the last great man.''

The people of Tiraspol could care less about what day Lebed rode into town. They remember him as a John Wayne sort, the ultimate sheriff: a hulking, laconic man with a voice like a jet. By the time he left Tiraspol in 1995–after several times refusing direct orders by his superiors to depart–he had become, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a fire-breathing advocate of that fading ideal: glorious Russia. He was so deeply revered that hundreds of women lay down on the runway of the local airport to keep his replacement from landing. Rather than bow to the chain of command, he stated simply that he hoped the people would surround the new man, Lieut. Gen. Valery Yevnevich, ''with pitchforks.'' They almost did.

A VISIT TO THE sprawling Russian Army base at Khankala, on the eastern edge of Grozny, is about as close as one can get in 20th-century Russia to watching the Crimean War. Frantic doctors, desperate for any medication, anesthetize their patients with vodka. Mothers wrapped in scarves wander the muddy passes with notebooks and photo albums under their arms. Their dark eyes are empty.

''We heard from a friend of our Sasha's the day before the battle broke out,'' says Valentina Sorokina, a woman from the Moscow region who had come, like so many others, to search for some sign that her son was alive. She appeared in Grozny in late August, only days after the Chechen rebels had overrun the town–killing hundreds of Russian soldiers, wounding many more and taking entire brigades prisoner. ''We do not know what unit he was in. We never have.''

The war for Chechnya has ruined this breathtaking land and killed tens of thousands of innocent people. It has destroyed the myth of the invincible Russian Army and it has fundamentally challenged the already damaged psyche of a nation that only a few years ago controlled one of the great empires of modern times. It has tested Russia's tolerance and true ideals as nothing has since the fall of the Soviet Union. And by the end of September, as defeated Russian troops finally withdrew from Grozny and the mountain hollows where they had been cut apart and harassed for months by rebels, not a thing had been resolved here.

Independence, the reason the separatists fought, was no closer than it had been on the frigid day in 1994 when Boris Yeltsin sent bombers to destroy Grozny, a city filled with elderly Russian pensioners, many of whom died in the onslaught. And mighty Russia, the colonial giant that the Chechens had defied and terrorized for centuries, was no closer to genuinely ruling the land than it had ever been.

There is a huge billboard on the base at Khankala. Printed beneath a wide mountainscape are the words of Aleksei Yermolov, the 19th-century Russian general whose scorched-earth war against the Chechens was replicated with uncanny precision in the past two years: ''In the Caucuses we served, we serve and we will always serve for the glory of Russia.'' Lebed literally spits when he sees it. Rubbing the dust from his eyes with the heels of his hands, he looks as if he has just strolled into one of his own nightmares.

''This war was a criminal act,'' he says, as he prepares to board an aging Soviet Army helicopter to take him to a negotiating session with the rebels in the hills south of Grozny. ''We ignored our history and we ignored their history. What can anyone say we died for?''

For the Chechen opposition, Lebed presents the only real chance for peace. He is the first Russian leader to call them what they so obviously are: a committed, courageous and disciplined army. Lebed developed an instant rapport with his enemies–even playing chess with Shirvani Basayev, the brother of Shamil, Russia's most famous Chechen foe. ''He's not bad,'' Lebed joked after the abbreviated match, in the courtyard of a house used for negotiations. ''But I am better.''

Lebed had warned Russia, pleaded with Russia and finally denounced Russia for its willingness to go to war here. He knew too much to be silent and after his first trip to the region he unloaded on his own Government with unrestrained passion.

''When we left Afghanistan, we left behind a ruined country,'' he said at an astonishing news conference this summer, in which he sounded far more like a leader of a peace movement than Russia's best-known general. ''We left having secured the breeding of a generation capable only of killing. And it is not just that we simply left–we left with the war wrapped around the tracks of our tanks and woven round the wheels of our vehicles, and the war flared up on our soil.''

In many ways, Chechnya was worse. Yet after Lebed became a member of the Yeltsin Administration–chosen largely because he was the only man tough (or stupid) enough to try to negotiate his way out of the quagmire–even he spent a few weeks mouthing the official line.

''Doubts can exist only before the beginning of a war,'' he said in July, as Russian airborne units mounted an all-out offensive against the steaming Chechen hills, where rebel soldiers had been dug in for two years. It was a strange comment from a senior general who had spent more than a year speaking very publicly about his doubts. ''We are fighting not so much for a specific territory but for Russia's national dignity,'' he continued. ''Russia must announce to the world that it will never again retreat.''

It was the language of Yeltsin, and coming from Lebed it seemed false, almost comical. His immediate turnaround struck enemies and admirers alike as a sellout. ''It was strange,'' says Viktor Litovkin, the chief military correspondent for the newspaper Izvestia. ''He had never wavered on Chechnya from the day it began. Now suddenly he was a hawk. It does make you wonder if this guy has all the principles he's supposed to have.''

In Grozny and the mountain villages of Chechnya, where rebel soldiers were being bombed each day and shelled by mortars every night, the reaction was rage. ''They are Russians, so we are used to every lie,'' said Akhmed Zakayev, the national security adviser to the separatist government of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. ''We thought he might be different because he is a soldier. What a pity that we were wrong.'' So the rebels decided they had had enough. In the most audacious act of the war, they stormed the city Russia had captured and took it back from the largest army in Europe.

At that moment, Aleksandr Lebed decided to admit that Russia had lost.

''If history can teach us anything at all,'' he said, ''it should teach us the main thing–that reason must prevail. Unfortunately, we did not use it when we fought in Afghanistan and we are not using it now. Bombs, missiles and ammunition are used as a panacea for all ills, a recipe for everything in life. I saw a crowd of sad soldiers' mothers, their eyes shining with hope and a bitter realization that in many of those eyes the glimmer of hope will have to die. I have drawn my first conclusions about Chechnya: an impoverished country, with its economy and its armed and other forces and troops half ruined, cannot afford the luxury of fighting a war.''

The next day, the ultimate general, the nationalist symbol who had spent his entire adult life in the army, announced that Russian troops did not belong on what he described as the ''ancient Chechen land.'' Within a week they were packing to go.

LEBED IS STANDING IN A muddy field in the middle of Chechnya. Tanks surround him and helicopters hover nervously above. Suddenly, an apparition. An elderly woman wrapped from head to foot in black–veil, dress, the rubber boots of a peasant–has stormed through his line of bodyguards. She demands an audience.

''I must see him!'' she yells. ''I must see him myself.'' The general stiffens but approaches. ''I have lost two sons and I have lost my home,'' she says, without a tear. ''I am a Chechen woman and no longer believe Russia is a great nation. But we will rebuild Grozny one day. And when we do there will be a statue of the great Lebed in the center. When I go to visit the cemetery I will go there too. And I will put flowers at your feet.''

Lebed says nothing. He just places her frail hands in his. Then he rushes off to meet his enemies.

It seemed to many that like Nixon in China, only a total warrior like Lebed–a man whose nose has been broken so often during a life of boxing matches that he now flattens it against his face like a pancake as a party trick–could stop the violence currently convulsing Russia. Unlike other nationalist leaders, he has never had to prove his toughness. Along with severe injuries to his legs and visions of death he says never leave him, Lebed took from Afghanistan a firm belief in the obscenity of wars fought for nothing.

''For politically unreasonable and unacceptable decisions soldiers always paid with their lives, their bones and their blood,'' he wrote in his autobiography. ''Those who start wars know in advance that neither they nor any of their children will ever participate in them. No, they stir up the flames of war for us, the cattle.''

His experience and sophistication are often questioned–and with good reason. Although he is scheduled to address a NATO conference in Brussels later this month, the man who hopes to become president of Russia has never ventured beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan. He knows little of economic theory or the type of public-policy disputes that occupy people who run nations.

He is what Russians call a muzhik, a man, a peasant, a regular Joe.

It is for that reason perhaps that he signed and published two completely contradictory economic programs during his campaign this spring. One advocated free markets above all. The other called for strong state support of industry. When a panic-stricken campaign aide asked him how he hoped to explain the contradiction, Lebed laughed and told him nobody would notice. He was right.

''It's not like he is dedicated to one economic program over the other,'' says Vitaly A. Naishul, a leading libertarian economist who wrote the free-market platform for Lebed. ''He just wants the country to be peaceful. He has the same understanding of economics as an ordinary Russian. Things that would seem inconsistent to us are consistent to him.''

If Lebed's policy credentials are in doubt, his integrity is not. Lebed, after all, was an Afghan war hero who has for the past two years been named by soldiers as the most popular man in Russia's vast and demoralized army. He also, while still wearing the uniform of that army, famously wrote Yeltsin off last year as a ''complete minus.''

Even after he was named national security adviser–with powers far broader than anyone in the role has ever held–Lebed remained cool to his new boss. Asked in the final days before the election if he would campaign for the president, who had just said publicly he might be a fine successor, Lebed fixed his gunmetal eyes on the questioner like lasers and replied: ''Do I even remotely resemble an entertainer to you?''

Suspicious as they were, democrats in a country where the iron fist has always triumphed simply could not afford to toss the man aside. In an act of pragmatism–or cynicism, depending on your world view–many of Russia's brightest young liberal politicians worked hard to prepare him for the presidency. Even Lebed himself knew he wouldn't win this year (his comment was typically terse and foreboding: ''My time has not yet come'') but his campaign team decided early that one of these days the general was going to go all the way. So it developed a plan to harness his energy and rein in the dark side.

''We felt and I still feel that this man may well be president of Russia,'' says Yulia Rusova, an experienced organizer who helped run his presidential campaign. ''He is like a child in politics. A vessel. He is not yet sure of what he wants to be. But he listens and he learns. The people that say he is a fool owe themselves another look. It is just that he simply has not decided where he stands on many issues that matter greatly. We decided that with us maybe he would turn in the right direction.''

It is not at all clear that they have succeeded.

He lashed out at some of the country's leading democrats when they invited him in September to an antiwar rally in Moscow's Pushkin Square. ''These people who have been previously unnoticed in my circle of friends now wish to represent themselves as supporters of my work in Chechnya,'' he said, genuinely outraged. ''I have to say now that I have never had the honor to require their help and I hope that I never will.''

Lebed has argued against an elected legislature, saying that it would be far better for the country if the president just appointed one. He has promised ''draconian'' measures to stamp out the corruption that often threatens to overwhelm the country. The name of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is often invoked in comparison to Lebed–but the general himself prefers to be compared to de Gaulle.

He has never made a secret of his hatred for the weakened, palsied country that Russia has become. Better than anyone, he understands the true state of the Russian Army in the post-Soviet years. And he ties it to the moral failures of Russia itself. But now he is in danger of becoming a different kind of symbol–not of Russian virility but of Russian impotence. He may be certain the only way to save Russia is to stop the war, but his former supporters can hardly believe what has happened to their great iron god.

''We adored that man,'' says Aleksandr Prokhanov, perhaps Russia's most influential right-wing ideologue and himself a nationalist icon. ''He literally was like a knight in shining armor to us. Riding from one hot spot to the next, battling to the death for this glorious land.''

They do not love him now. What people like Prokhanov and Moscow's Mayor, Yuri Luzkhov–a likely opponent in the next presidential election–call Lebed's ''complete sellout and surrender'' on Chechnya has replaced their warmth for the towering general. After Lebed stated flatly that Russia should withdraw its troops from the bloody province, many of his biggest fans began calling him a traitor. ''It is the greatest Russian capitulation in centuries,'' says Prokhanov, a hawk who still has strong allies in the military. In the first weeks of Lebed's bold effort to end the war, even Yeltsin himself–who gave Lebed his wide powers and urged him to use them–refused to meet with him. They finally had a testy meeting in Yeltsin's hospital room to discuss the situation in Chechnya.

If the rejection shook Lebed, nobody noticed. After signing a peace treaty with his Chechen counterpart, Aslan Maskhadov, on Aug. 22, he said: ''I know there will be critics of these accords among both democrats and great patriots. To them I can only say that if they like, they are welcome to form a brigade and storm Grozny.'' It was a caustic reprise of one of his most memorable comments on the war: ''I am ready to lead any regiment into any battle,'' he said publicly as the murderous assault on Grozny began in December 1994. ''Just as long as it is a regiment drawn only of children and grandchildren of the people who run our country.''

NOBODY HAS ANY IDEA WHO ALEKSANDR Lebed will be next. He is a brutal man who never loses his cool; an ardent nationalist who says he would abolish Russia's discriminatory system of classifying people by national and religious background. Is he really the sage veteran tough enough to bring peace? Or will he revert to the man who ordered his soldiers in Tiraspol to shoot on sight civilians who were out after curfew? Has the disaster in Chechnya changed Aleksandr Lebed, making him understand the new realities of Russia in ways he never did before? Or is he simply seeking cheap political points by denouncing a war that was fought by other people for principles he himself supports?

Even though the last election ended in July, the next campaign has clearly begun, particularly with the delicate state of Boris Yeltsin's health. Lebed, who ran this year on a three-word platform, ''Truth and Order,'' has already begun to raise money for the next round and believes he can't lose by attacking the Kremlin, even if he is part of it. He may be right, but it's a risky game, especially if Yeltsin somehow manages to serve his full term. For Lebed, the sooner Yeltsin disappears the better, and he may believe Yeltsin's health is so bad that completing his new term will prove impossible.

As recently as last month Lebed compared Yeltsin to Leonid Brezhnev, the ultimate symbol of Soviet stagnation and frailty, and suggested flatly that it was time for his new boss to go. But Boris Yeltsin is ruthless, a survivor and–as this year's election showed–not impressed by poll data, bad odds or conventional wisdom. He makes a regular habit of tossing his closest allies in the trash. If his health rebounds, his love for Lebed will last only as long as Yeltsin needs him. And after banging his granite head against the Kremlin bulwarks for a while, even Lebed may begin to reel.

Lebed almost never takes a step forward without also taking two steps back. After signing the peace initiative with the Chechens, he draped himself for a celebratory moment in the traditional coat and high sheepskin papakha hat of the Chechen people. The picture ran in nearly every paper in Russia, and so did the criticism. ''Can you imagine Henry Kissinger wearing black pajamas to a meeting with Le Duc Tho?'' one editorial asked. He may be able to compromise with soldiers, but apparently not with colleagues. Over the objections of Chubais, Lebed named the leftist economist he turned to during his campaign, Sergei Glazyev, as his deputy for economic policy on the National Security Council. Glazyev has since declared open warfare on Chernomyrdin and his free-market economic policies–not an approach destined to win the backing of the big money men Lebed would need for any serious campaign.

The contradictions are nearly impossible to resolve but easy to understand. ''The man was trained his whole adult life as a paratrooper,'' says Pavel Felgengauer, military analyst and national security correspondent for the newspaper Segodnya. ''That means he has been taught to make every decision–especially the important ones–in three seconds flat. Spend four and you are dead. ''That is why he is a great soldier,'' Felgengauer says. ''But we might need a president with more of an attention span.''

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