Gen. Alexander Lebed was the paratroop general who became a Russian national hero in the chaotic years during and immediately after the collapse of communism for acting boldly and often unilaterally to protect suddenly endangered Russian minorities and interests in the newly independent former Soviet republics. He was so popular that Russian President Boris Yeltsin, at the height of his unpopularity, brought him on to his team as Russia's national security chief. And Lebed's popular coattails proved crucial to Yeltsin's come-from-behind re-election victory in 1996.
But after that, Lebed's star rapidly waned: He was too outspoken and forceful and acted like a bull in a china shop in the corrupt court filled with intrigue that swirled around Yeltsin in the Kremlin. Also, Lebed, in striking contrast to shrewd current Russian President Vladimir Putin, never knew when to shut up. The general had a big, fat mouth that always got him into trouble.
So Yeltsin dropped Lebed early in his second presidential term, and the general became a has-been. He won election as the governor of the diamond-rich oblast, or region of Yakutia -- in Siberia, but then ran afoul of aluminum mining magnates there. He was killed in a plane crash in 2002.
Where Lebed's ghost now haunts Putin, the man who succeeded where he failed in restoring the unity and autocratic, centralized effective power of the Russian state, is in the area of relations with China. For Lebed sought to build a popular base by warning of the demographic threat to Russia's historic control of Siberia and the Asiatic steppes east of the Ural Mountains. But Putin rejected that policy and instead embraced his giant Chinese neighbor with its enormous and rapidly growing industrial base from early in his presidency.
On June 15, 2001, Putin joined with Chinese President Jiang Zemin to create the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with the leaders of four former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
For some years, Putin appeared to balance his growing close ties with Beijing with his also initially good relations with U.S. President Bush. But especially after Bush in his second term embraced the agenda of promoting democracy in Central Asia -- the darling policy of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky -- Putin clearly boosted his security ties with China.
In 2005 and again this year, the two giant nations held major joint military exercises to develop interoperability in communications and weapons systems in their armed forces -- something the Soviet Union and Communist China never once did even in their supposed honeymoon period during the early Cold War from 1949 to 1958 and the Sino-Soviet split.
However, in the crucial area of arms sales, cooperation has not grown: It has stalled entirely.
At its height only a few years ago, sales to China amounted to no less than 40 percent of annual Russian arms export earnings. But China is no longer satisfied with the "meat and potato" items that Russia has been selling her in bulk. Chinese military leaders are increasingly demanding much more advanced military technology purchases that they are as yet incapable of producing themselves.
But the Russians, mindful of the fact that China's population is almost 10 times their own -- 1.3 billion and rising fast compared with an aging and shrinking Russian total population that may now be below 140 million -- are flatly refusing to make the deals.
(Next: Where the arms deadlocks are)