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How Libya Has Given Russia’s Medvedev a Confidence Boost

5 minute read
Simon Shuster / Moscow

The missiles that have been falling on Libya since Saturday have opened anunlikely chasm halfway around the world —inside Russia’s ruling partnership.

Up until now, President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister VladimirPutin have kept up the appearance of unity on every issue, whilenobody much doubted that Putin was at the wheel. But on Monday, whenthe Prime Minister compared the Libyan crisis to a “medieval crusade,”the cracks began to show. Not only did Medvedev stand up to his formermentor, but government ministers, pundits and state media quicklylined up behind the President. Suddenly it didn’t seem naive to ask: Who isreally in charge of Russia?

(See pictures of Russia celebrating Victory Day.)

Under the constitution, handling foreign affairs issues falls to thePresident, as Putin humbly pointed out on Monday when he wasasked about the crisis in Libya. But that has never stopped the PrimeMinister fromstating his views on any topic he likes (often with more authoritythan Medvedev). And it didn’t stop him this time from launching intohis harangue.

“In the policies of the United States, [military intervention] isbecoming a stable tendency and trend,” Putin said, counting the conflicts inYugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq as examples. “Now Libya is next inline, with the excuse of defending its civilian population. But whenyou bomb a territory, it is the civilians who die. Where is the logicand the conscience in this? There’s neither one nor the other.” Then,borrowing the words of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Putin said theU.N. resolution on the bombing raidsresembled “the medieval calls for a Christian crusade.”

(See exclusive photos of the unrest in Tripoli.)

That last phrase is what seems to have angered Medvedev. Three hourslater, he went before the TV cameras dressed in a black leather jacketembroidered with the words “Commander in Chief” — a none too subtlereminder.

“Under no circumstances can anyone use phrases that, in effect, leadto a clash of civilizations, such as ‘Christian crusades’ and so on.This is unacceptable,” Medvedev said. Russia chose not to veto theresolution against Libya in the U.N. Security Council because, thePresident added, “I do not think that resolution is wrong.” Gaddafibrought it on himself, Medvedev said, when he used force against his ownpeople, “and everyone should remember that.”

(See pictures of Putin and Medvedev’s ski vacation.)

Never before had Russia’s two top leaders locked horns so openly, and on Mondaynight, state-run television channels signaled whose position had wonout. Networks that had aired Putin’s remarks earlier in the day removedthem from their evening broadcasts, and some even took them off theirwebsites — an unprecedented snub to the man regarded as the head ofthe nation. Medvedev’s statement, meanwhile, was shown on all themajor channels.

But Putin did not enter into a polemic. Instead, he told reporters on Tuesdaynight that “there can be no division” between him and Medvedev. “Weare close and we understand each other,” he said, while allowinghimself just one last swipe at those who signed off on the bombing ofLibya: “They should pray for the salvation of their souls.” By thattime, both the foreign and defense ministers had echoed Medvedev’sposition.

“So for the elites, the signal was clear,” says Evgeny Minchenko, apolitical strategist and spin doctor. In Russia’s 2012 elections “thequestion of whowill be president for the next six years, Putin or Medvedev, willdepend largely on who has more backing from the elites, and they nowhave a lot to think about.”

To them, Putin represents a stiff-lipped pragmatism when it comes tothe West. He strikes deals and makes concessions when it benefitsRussia, but he has little patience for liberal democratic values andfew illusions about brotherly ties with Washington. Medvedev, at leastin his rhetoric, has painted himself as the opposite. He wantsmeaningful liberal reforms and real integration with the West. “And this position is gaining favor,”Minchenko says.”Everybody wants to be in the same club as the global elites.”

Well, maybe not everyone. There is still a powerful bloc in Russianpolitics that does not trust the West’s oaths of friendship. They tendto believe that the U.S. does not have allies, only interests. “All America wants is unlimited access to all the world’s resources,including of course Russia’s,” says Konstantin Sivkov, a formerstrategist for the Russian General Staff who is now deputy head of aconservative think tank in Moscow. “What they’re doing in Libya is thesame. It is barbaric … This is not a war to protect the Libyan people,it is a war against the Libyan people.”

(See exclusive photos of Libya’s rebels.)

But Russia has missed its chance to veto the U.N. resolution that letthe bombing of Libya proceed, and no matter how annoyed Putin might beabout this fact, he is letting the issue drop. A fitting chance tobring it up again will come later this year, when Putin and Medvedevsit down to decide which of them will run for president next year, andconsidering Monday’s heated exchange, that conversation may not be thegentlemanly chat the two of them have promised. Medvedev’scommander-in-chief leather jacket seems to have grown on him.

Read “Libya’s Rebels: Taking the Fight to Gaddafi, with Help.”

See pictures of the battle for Libya.

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