|VALENTIN VARENNIKOV (Associated Press/File 2008)|
Valentin Varennikov; directed the Soviet war in Afghanistan
MOSCOW - Retired General Valentin Varennikov, a hawkish World War II veteran who directed the Soviet war in Afghanistan and joined the rebellion against Mikhail Gorbachev that sped the collapse of the Soviet Union, died in Moscow Wednesday, colleagues said. He was 85.
General Varennikov died at Moscow's Burdenko Hospital, the military's top medical facility, according to the Military Commanders Club, an association of retired high-ranking military officers. The group's spokesman, Nikolai Deryabin, would not give the cause of his death, but said it followed neurosurgery General Varennikov underwent in January.
He joined the Red Army after graduating from an officers school in 1942 and was sent directly to the front. He was wounded three times and was among a small group of war heroes who were given the honor of carrying captured Nazi banners and throwing them onto the pedestal of Lenin's tomb during a 1945 victory parade on Red Square.
He rose steadily through the ranks to lead a group of Soviet forces in East Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1979, he was named the first deputy chief of the Soviet General Staff and played an active role in the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
From 1984-1989, General Varennikov served as the top Soviet military officer in Afghanistan, leaving the country briefly to help coordinate salvage efforts after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
In 1988, General Varennikov was awarded the highest Soviet decoration, the Hero of the Soviet Union medal.
In 1989, the year of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, he was named the chief of Soviet ground troops.
He enthusiastically backed the August 1991 hard-line coup that briefly ousted President Mikhail Gorbachev, who returned to the Kremlin but resigned four months later as the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
General Varennikov was arrested along with other plotters after their defeat and was sent to prison.
But unlike others, he rejected a 1994 Kremlin amnesty and demanded a trial, which ended in his acquittal.
He went on to pursue a political career, winning election to Parliament on the Communist Party ticket in 1995. He was elected again in 2003.
General Varennikov fiercely criticized Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, accusing him of running the country to ruin, but praised Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, for his moves to rebuild the nation's military might and global prestige.
General Varennikov has been scathingly critical of the West, accusing it of plotting to weaken and subdue Russia.
Putin repeatedly met with General Varennikov and other Soviet military veterans, and it was during his presidency that General Varennikov was named the Defense Ministry's inspector general, a largely honorary title.