HERE'S WHAT Gen. Alexander Lebed, the potential presidential candidate of the Russian nationalist right, had to say about Boris Yeltsin's defense minister, Pavel Grachev: "He has lost his honor. He is a prostitute, and I don't like prostitutes, whether in skirts or pants." The quotation is instructive because Mr. Grachev is the fellow who has just signed an agreement with U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry to have Russian troops serve in Bosnia under American generals.
This accord is sure to be a big issue in the Russian parliamentary elections scheduled next month. A strong "Red-Brown," (communist-nationalist) majority may emerge as a prelude to presidential elections due next June. That may be the moment for General Lebed's bid for power -- a development that could poison American-Russian relations.
Feeding the resistance to the Yeltsin government is a widespread feeling that Russia has been humiliated by the Western victory in the Cold War. With NATO moving boldly to incorporate former Warsaw Pact nations and as the imperative for a Russian role in Bosnian peace-keeping becomes ever more urgent, Mr. Grachev had a dilemma in negotiating with Mr. Perry.
He was bound and determined not to put his troops under the command of NATO, which is depicted by Kremlin officialdom as the main menace to Russian sovereignty. So his solution, despite years of superpower rivalry, was to put them in the U.S. chain of command under American generals wearing two hats -- one NATO, one strictly U.S. Still to be worked out is a political plan to give the Russians a voice, not a veto, in NATO councils
It does not make it any easier for Mr. Grachev that U.S. officials have called the deal a "figleaf" operating "under NATO orders but not under a NATO letterhead." This kind of talk, while true enough, is made to order for Yeltsin opponents, especially General Lebed, whose new military faction, "Honor and Motherland," is his platform for election to the Duma and, perhaps, to the presidency.
While now using democracy's devices, the retired army hero minces no words in saying Russia needs a dictator. On the subject of Bosnia, he has accused NATO of behaving there "like a drunken hooligan in a kindergarten" and has warned his government that is it "dragging the army into a diplomatic failure."
In this ominous situation, American officials ought to be a little more discreet, a little more subtle, even as they try to impress a doubtful Congress that they have a workable game plan to get in -- and get out -- of Bosnia.