How Libya Has Given Russia's Medvedev a Confidence Boost

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Left; Misha Japaridze / AFP / Getty Images: Alexey Nikolsky / AFP / Getty Images

On March 22, 2011, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, slammed the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's comments on the Libya conflict.

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

Up until now, President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have kept up the appearance of unity on every issue, while nobody much doubted that Putin was at the wheel. But on Monday, when the Prime Minister compared the Libyan crisis to a "medieval crusade," the cracks began to show. Not only did Medvedev stand up to his former mentor, but government ministers, pundits and state media quickly lined up behind the President. Suddenly it didn't seem naive to ask: Who is really in charge of Russia?

Under the constitution, handling foreign affairs issues falls to the President, as Putin humbly pointed out on Monday when he was asked about the crisis in Libya. But that has never stopped the Prime Minister from stating his views on any topic he likes (often with more authority than Medvedev). And it didn't stop him this time from launching into his harangue.

"In the policies of the United States, [military intervention] is becoming a stable tendency and trend," Putin said, counting the conflicts in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq as examples. "Now Libya is next in line, with the excuse of defending its civilian population. But when you bomb a territory, it is the civilians who die. Where is the logic and the conscience in this? There's neither one nor the other." Then, borrowing the words of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Putin said the U.N. resolution on the bombing raids resembled "the medieval calls for a Christian crusade."

That last phrase is what seems to have angered Medvedev. Three hours later, he went before the TV cameras dressed in a black leather jacket embroidered with the words "Commander in Chief" — a none too subtle reminder.

"Under no circumstances can anyone use phrases that, in effect, lead to a clash of civilizations, such as 'Christian crusades' and so on. This is unacceptable," Medvedev said. Russia chose not to veto the resolution against Libya in the U.N. Security Council because, the President added, "I do not think that resolution is wrong." Gaddafi brought it on himself, Medvedev said, when he used force against his own people, "and everyone should remember that."

Never before had Russia's two top leaders locked horns so openly, and on Monday night, state-run television channels signaled whose position had won out. Networks that had aired Putin's remarks earlier in the day removed them from their evening broadcasts, and some even took them off their websites — an unprecedented snub to the man regarded as the head of the nation. Medvedev's statement, meanwhile, was shown on all the major channels.

But Putin did not enter into a polemic. Instead, he told reporters on Tuesday night that "there can be no division" between him and Medvedev. "We are close and we understand each other," he said, while allowing himself just one last swipe at those who signed off on the bombing of Libya: "They should pray for the salvation of their souls." By that time, both the foreign and defense ministers had echoed Medvedev's position.

"So for the elites, the signal was clear," says Evgeny Minchenko, a political strategist and spin doctor. In Russia's 2012 elections "the question of who will be president for the next six years, Putin or Medvedev, will depend largely on who has more backing from the elites, and they now have a lot to think about."

To them, Putin represents a stiff-lipped pragmatism when it comes to the West. He strikes deals and makes concessions when it benefits Russia, but he has little patience for liberal democratic values and few illusions about brotherly ties with Washington. Medvedev, at least in his rhetoric, has painted himself as the opposite. He wants meaningful 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 Russian politics that does not trust the West's oaths of friendship. They tend to 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 former strategist for the Russian General Staff who is now deputy head of a conservative think tank in Moscow. "What they're doing in Libya is the same. It is barbaric ... This is not a war to protect the Libyan people, it is a war against the Libyan people."

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