MOSCOW -- Sounding more like a hawkish military commander than the man most Russians thought would finally bring an end to the war in Chechnya, Alexander Lebed, the new national security adviser to President Boris N. Yeltsin, took a far more bellicose stance on the war yesterday than he ever has before.
Although he said he soon plans to visit the secessionist southern republic to try to negotiate a new peace accord, Lebed's remarks yesterday indicate that the deeply unpopular war, which has killed at least 30,000 people in the last 18 months, might be far from over.
In an interview that also touched on many of the controversies Lebed has ignited in his short time in the Kremlin, the outspoken critic of the Chechen war said that it was foolish to talk of Chechen independence from Russia.
He said that the conflict in southern Russia had escalated sharply again since the presidential election because "there has not been a day that bandits have not shot at and killed Russian forces there."
After the first round of the Russian election last month, Lebed, a 46-year-old retired army general, was named as Yeltsin's national security adviser. He emerged immediately as the second most powerful man in Russia and as Yeltsin's heir apparent.
But shortly after gaining his new position, Lebed found that his blunt remarks -- about Jews in Russia, the war in Chechnya, power struggles in the Kremlin -- and his clear desire to inherit Yeltsin's job made it seem likely that he would prove troublesome for democracy in Russia, rather than be its savior.
Eager to explain his views and counter what he regards as a false impression of his motives, Lebed asked through leaders of the Jewish community in Moscow to speak yesterday with a reporter from the New York Times.
In the interview, Lebed acknowledged that his working relationship with many Kremlin colleagues is strained and repeated his desire to become president, which he said would happen "if they don't shoot me first."
Lebed became intensely popular as the voice of conscience within the military, a man who would speak out in direct opposition to the war in Chechnya. It is largely for that reason that he received 15 million votes in the first round of the elections, making Yeltsin eager to draw him into his circle.
From the beginning of the war, Lebed, who was then still a general on active duty, denounced the campaign as one that "repeated all the worst mistakes of Afghanistan," where the Soviet Union became mired in a war that eventually was won by Islamic guerrillas.
He has said dozens of times that there is no chance of a Russian victory in Chechnya, and he also has said that the war risks putting Russia at war with the "whole Muslim world."
Yesterday Lebed sounded far more like the officials he has criticized than the voice of opposition.
The man who told a German interviewer two weeks ago that he "wouldn't mind" seeing Chechnya become an independent state denounced the rebels there as "bandits" and insisted, as have the most hawkish Kremlin aides from the start of the war, that "Chechnya is on the territory of Russia."
"Only from that position can we look at issues of war and peace there," he said.
Lebed was apologetic about having omitted Judaism when he was asked to give a list of legitimate religions in Russia. He was sharply criticized for the omission, here and abroad, as well as for saying that a question from a reporter sounded as if it came more from a "Jew" than a "Cossack."
Pub Date: 7/14/96