WASHINGTON -- The ouster of Kremlin national security chief Alexander I. Lebed offers a harsh reminder that the global security system once held in place by the U.S.-Soviet nuclear rivalry is still in disarray seven years after the end of the Cold War.
The immediate upshot of the firing is new uncertainty over how long peace in Chechnya will last, since Lebed arranged the controversial settlement. New fighting could further weaken the leadership of ailing President Boris N. Yeltsin, according to U.S. officials and analysts.
The firing may also put new roadblocks in the way of expansion of the Atlantic Alliance into Eastern Europe, according to analysts and U.S. officials.
By further delaying important treaties, the turmoil in Russia's national security system marks a new setback in U.S. attempts to reduce post-Cold War threats. For years, U.S. officials have tried to develop a structure of international agreements to reduce weapons of mass destruction, but this structure is only partially assembled.
Meanwhile, China, the world's most populous nation, is also undergoing a tense leadership change as it surges forward economically. Neighboring countries watch nervously for signs that it will try to project its growing military power across the Pacific.
"This is not necessarily a time for good relations between states or for innovations" that could lead to improvement, says John B. Rhinelander, vice chairman of the Arms Control Association, a
Washington think tank.
Lebed's firing was not unexpected in Washington, since Yeltsin is known not to tolerate subordinates with independent power bases.
Nor did U.S. officials shed any tears, since Lebed had angered them with comments troubling to many about Germany, the United States and religious groups, including Jews, Roman Catholics and Mormons.
With the White House trying to keep foreign policy controversy to a minimum as President Clinton cruises toward the Nov. 5 election well ahead in the polls, the administration played down the impact of the ouster.
No need to worry?
"I don't think the American public needs to worry that this is some fundamental turning point," said Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman.
"This is dramatic. It's important. We're not exactly sure where it's going to lead in the future, but the [U.S.-Russian] relationship is stable and this is what matters ultimately to the American people."
But Clinton could become politically vulnerable if the Kremlin crisis deepens. Republicans have often been critical of his close relationship with Yeltsin.
'Hanging by a thread'
"The administration's Russia policy is hanging by a thread -- a heart surgeon's thread," said Peter Rodman, an adviser to Republican presidents who is at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom.
"We're in the pre-election phase in Russia again with all the uncertainty that brings," said Rhinelander, referring to this year's Russian contest.
And that means U.S. officials still can't count Lebed out of the Russian picture since his already strong popularity -- and presidential ambitions -- may even be enhanced.
For now, "there are two concerns: The agreement in Chechnya might unravel, and Russia could adopt a harder line on NATO expansion," said Robert O. Freedman, an expert on Russia at Baltimore Hebrew University.
Renewed fighting in Chechnya would revive the worst political problem of the Yeltsin presidency -- one that he had feared might cost him last summer's election -- and thus further weaken his leadership.
"Lebed came much closer than anybody else to accepting the expansion of NATO. With him out of government, one worries that the government will take a harder line," Freedman said.
The timetable for the expansion already has slipped as France and Germany worry about antagonizing Russia, giving Republicans a weapon against Clinton.
But the dispute over the NATO expansion is just part of an uneasy U.S.-Russian security relationship that some analysts fear could grow even more troubled in the absence of Lebed, whose job allowed him to influence Russian security policy.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry is trying this week to persuade a reluctant Russian parliament to ratify the strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty known as START II.
Yesterday Perry made his case before the State Duma, saying each country could save $5 billion over five years by destroying warheads instead of keeping large arsenals. But he apparently failed to convince key legislative leaders.
"Ratification of START II is quite problematic. It is not in the interest of the Russian side," responded Duma Defense Committee Chairman Lev Rokhlin.
The Clinton administration believes it can overcome Russian worries about the costs imposed by the treaty by promising them further strategic arms reductions in a subsequent treaty, START III, for which negotiations have not yet begun.
Marshall Goldman, a Russian expert at Harvard, says ratification of START will be delayed further as a result of Lebed's dismissal.
Other international treaties are incomplete as well, leaving big gaps in a world security structure that U.S. officials had hoped to build -- with Russia as a major partner -- at the end of the Cold War.
Moscow is waiting for the United States to act on the Chemical Weapons Convention -- halted by the GOP-controlled Senate at nTC the urging of Bob Dole -- before considering its own ratification.
In addition, India, resisting overwhelming pressure from other nations, has prevented a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty from entering into force.
"Every one of the promising post-Cold War treaties negotiated by the Bush administration hangs in limbo," said Michael Krepon, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, which watches progress on arms control.
Pub Date: 10/18/96