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March 20, 2011

Putin, Medvedev Engage in Rare Public Split Over Libya

by James Brooke

In a rare split between Russia’s two top leaders, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev calls Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s comments on Libya "unacceptable”  Russia’s ruling duo is like the national symbol, the two-headed eagle.  President Medvedev looks west.  His political mentor, Prime Minister Putin, looks east.  For the last three years, the two have managed to hide their differences and run the country together.

But now public tensions are emerging - over Libya.

Mr. Putin, visiting a military armaments factory, denounced the United Nations resolution allowing military action in Libya as "a medieval call to crusade."

The nations sending war planes on bombing missions to Libya include Britain, France and Italy.  During the Middle Ages, British, French and Italian knights joined Christian crusades against Islamic rulers in the eastern Mediterranean.

In response, President Medvedev donned a leather bomber jacket, and gave a press conference in a pine forest to rebut such loaded language.

He said, "Under no circumstances it is acceptable to use expressions which essentially lead to a clash of civilizations, such as ‘crusade’ and so on."

He defended his government’s decision to abstain on the U.N. resolution - a measure he said was only partly flawed.  In fact, he said, "I do not believe this resolution to be wrong."

A few hours earlier, Mr. Putin had called the resolution "defective and flawed."

Fyodor Lyukanov, editor of Russian in Global Affairs magazine, said it sounded as if Mr. Putin found Russia’s failure to veto the resolution offensive. "It looks like Putin felt obliged to publicly differentiate his position from Medvedev’s, because Medvedev’s decision to abstain in the Security Council was probably not what Putin would like to see as [a] Russian vote," he said.

Mr. Putin, on a tour of a ballistic missile assembly line in central Russia, delved even further into foreign policy.  "This U.S. policy is becoming a stable trend," he said.

Citing American air strikes on Belgrade and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, "Now it is Libya’s turn under the pretext of protecting civilians.  Where is the logic and the conscience?  There is neither."

Back in Moscow, Mr. Medvedev stressed to his pool of reporters that Western military action in Libya is "the result of the appalling behavior of the Libyan leadership and the crimes it committed against its own people."

One year from now, Russians are to vote for president.  Today, political watchers are scrutinizing the tandem for cracks that might point to the next official candidate.

The Obama administration is making little secret of its preference for Mr. Medvedev.  When U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Moscow two weeks ago, he showered praise on Russia’s president, and quoted him approvingly seven times in his major address here.

On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is to meet in Moscow with President Medvedev and other high officials.  His schedule does not list a meeting with Prime Minister Putin.